Longevity is coming of age for folks in Kasilof and surrounding communities. Spruce Grove Memorial Park opened in the 1950s, but for the first 10 years no one over 90 took advantage of the creekside cemetery. As the decades continued to cascade, however, the 90-something segment of society picked up steam.
The 1960s saw the first two over-90 entrants, but that couple (James and Bertha Stryker) went without post-octogenarian company until 1988, when Wilma Freeland Thompson, 93, joined them. As the 1980s swept away, two more of these 90 candle-power people put in for rest, bringing the total to three for that decade.
The 1990s produced nine over-90 residents and the 2000s have already added seven to this august category.
Wilma Thompson (1895-1988) came to Alaska with her husband, Jasper, during World War II. He was the superintendent of schools at Nenana, then later Nome, and finally, Seldovia. Wilma taught in all those places, eventually making Kenai her final teaching assignment. The Thompsons homesteaded in 1955 between Kenai and Soldotna on the Kenai Spur Highway. Jasper was a World War l Navy veteran who passed away to Spruce Grove in 1977 at the age of 87.
“Mom (Wilma) liked teaching and hated to retire,” said their son, Stan Thompson.
Stan served as the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor from 1972-75 and again from 1980-87. In 1963 he worked in the Kasilof area operating a setnet site at Clam Gulch. A nursery in the Kenai Methodist Church was named after Wilma. Unfortunately, it has been eliminated, though the church is still active.
Another family shares a couple connections to Kasilof’s cemetery. Vera G. Rorrison was born in 1896. Her husband, Lawrence P. Rorrison, was a World War l vet. They moved from Minneapolis to Palmer in 1935 with the “colonists.” After trying to farm, Lawrence worked for the Road Commission. In 1970 the couple moved to Soldotna to join family. They had two children, Lawrence D. Rorrison, who married Meryl Rodgers, and Betty Lou Rorrison, who married Bert McCool. Vera reached 95 and was buried beside Lawrence P. (1894-1970) at Spruce Grove in 1991.
Meryl Rodgers’ mother, Esther Lauritzen Rodgers, also exceeded four score and 10 years and is resting in the Kasilof cemetery. She was born at Unga Island as Esther Lauritzen in 1909. A marriage to Chris Hansen produced three children, Arthur and twins, Mildred and Meryl. After her first marriage was over, Esther married Ray Rodgers Sr. in 1937. Together they had Ray Jr.
In 1947 the Rodgers’ family moved to Seward. Thirteen years later they bought a setnet site on Salamatof Beach and settled in Kenai. Lawrence D. and Meryl’s son, Rory Rorrison, fish that site now. Ray Rodgers fishes a site further north along Salamatof Beach. Esther was 97 when she passed away last November. Her husband has been in the cemetery since 1986.
Thor Lauritzen, Peggy Arness and Edward Melseth recently released “The Alaska Pen,” an illustrated history of Unga Island. Many members of the Lauritzen and Rodgers families are in their book.
This column was provided by Brent Johnson with the Kasilof Historical Society. Peggy Arness, Joanna Hollier, Ruth Johnson, Katherine Parker, Meryl Rodgers, Jan See (cemetery clerk), Stan Thompson, Kenai Totem Tracers and the Anchorage Daily News’ article, “Kenai Borough’s 10 Year Mayor Packs It In,” Chappell, 10-20-87; were used as sources or contributed to this article.
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