Alaskans honor Binkley at Fairbanks memorial service

Posted: Friday, January 10, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The mourners came to Capt. Jim Binkley's memorial service wearing bunny boots, parkas, Carhartts, moosehide, fur and good cloth overcoats.

They were a sampling of Alaskans from all walks of life.

''The captain touched so many of you in his own special way,'' said third son Johne Binkley to the crowd of about 600 gathered at Thursday's afternoon memorial service at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Charles Madison Binkley, known as Capt. Jim, died Jan. 3 in his home. He was 82. Alaska State Troopers say Binkley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Johne Binkley said his father had been in terrible pain and poor health due to a degenerative nerve disease.

The elder Binkley's lasting legacy is the booming river attraction, The Riverboat Discovery, which he and his wife Mary started just over 52 years ago with the purchase of a 50-foot, gas-powered boat. The pair built the business up until their four children were capable of managing the business, Johne Binkley said.

Now the river business, with its fleet of three white stern-wheelers, ferries tens of thousands of visitors every summer season and is considered a cornerstone of Alaska tourism. Capt. Jim's sons, Skip, Jim and Johne oversee operations, while daughter Marilee lives out of state.

The elder Binkley also was a legislator from 1961 to 1964 and was one of the organizers behind Alaskaland, now known as Pioneer Park.

Gov. Frank Murkowski ordered state flags to be flown at half staff until Jan. 14 in honor of Jim Binkley. Lt. Gov. Loren Leman attended the service as did other state and community leaders, including city Mayor Steve Thompson and Borough Mayor Rhonda Boyles.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Ted Stevens read tributes to Binkley from the floor of the U.S. Senate.

''His vision and hard work forever changed Alaska's visitor industry and for that we are very grateful,'' Stevens said.

Sen. Murkowski remembered sitting on banks of the Chena River as a teenager in Fairbanks.

''You could almost tell time by when Capt. Binkley would pilot the Discovery past our house, always waving his warm welcome as we tooted a fog horn in reply as the stern-wheeler rounded the small bend heading for the junction with the Tanana,'' she said in Washington, D.C.

The river cruise business brought summer jobs to the Interior's young people.

Flora Bergman Johnson, who traveled from Iliamna to be at the service, said it was hard for an Athabascan woman to find a job in the 1960s. Binkley hired her to be a guide on Discovery I and she so loved the job that she stayed on for seven summers, she said.

''I always thought he was Indian because he knew so much about us,'' Johnson said. ''He was bigger than life.''

Siobhan Wescott, a medical student at Harvard University, said she learned public speaking from Binkley during her summers working on the riverboat.

''He could take a crowd into the palm of his hand,'' she said.

Johne Binkley remembered his father in overalls, a cigar clenched in his teeth, while working on a boat. Many boats have been built or rebuilt the backyard of Binkley's family home on the banks of the Noyes Slough.

Binkley's voice softened as he spoke to his mother, Mary. ''I used to love to watch you and the captain dance,'' he said. The pair moved together in synchronization, and looks of love and devotion would pass between them, he said.

''You'll have the comfort of waving at the boat and seeing the next generation in the wheelhouse,'' he told her.

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