It is a humbling moment, when elders point out the intrinsic value in that which you have never considered. Dr. James Simpson did that for me last week. He had flown up from Oregon to attend a meeting of the Friends of Jesse Lee Home. Long flight for a two-hour meeting, even if it is to organize an effort to restore Alaska’s most endangered historic building.
Dr. Simpson is a former resident of the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, and a man of well-chosen words. He started reading a list of dates that benchmarked events relevant to the Jesse Lee Home. Two of them I circled on my notepad, April 15th selection of the state flag design; 2007 80th anniversary of the Alaska state flag.
Being Seward born, growing up with Benny Benson flying paper airplanes with the neighbor kids, our history as the birthplace of the Alaska state flag is something I have always taken for granted. I loved the Jesse Lee Home because she is the most hauntingly beautiful building I have ever seen, but was oblivious to her true beauty.
Dr. Simpson changed that for me. Driving to the bank this morning I saw the Jesse Lee Home grandly sitting on the hillside, her stucco walls and big timber beams an elegant frame for a rich legacy.
Simpson’s stories began to repeat in my head. The story of a woman in Unalaska who offered to take in a few children who were orphaned by an epidemic in the Aleutian Islands. How that number grew significantly, and quickly, as entire villages were wiped out.
How in the mid-1920s Seward donated 80 acres to the Jesse Lee Home, declared a holiday, and every man in town went up to clear the land for the building. How one woman raised $50,000 back when it was an immense amount of money, to build a dormitory for the girls. How the children raised money for a statue of Balto, pennies and nickels at a time, and their names were placed inside the base of the statue. The base is still there, I wonder if the names are.
Standing in the window of the Jesse Lee Home, looking at the moon rising above the reflecting mountains, Resurrection Bay flat and calm as a lake, it is easy to be centered. Easy to imagine a young Native boy looking out the same window, finding the North Star as his guide, and determining that as an appropriate symbol to guide a territory into statehood.
Easy to imagine Fanny, sitting in her flowered kuspuk, quietly, resolutely, thoughtfully piecing eight golden stars as she sewed our first flag. Easy to feel the pride and excitement of children brought here from every corner of the state, missing their birth families while embracing their Jesse Lee family, children who stood on these wooden floors as they watched a bold field of blue meet the sky for the first time.
It is a legacy that is shared by all Alaskans, this moment, this symbol, this inspiration, this place. The Jesse Lee Home must be restored before it is lost forever from neglect. It falls upon us now to realize that saving our past secures Alaska’s future.
Dorene M. Lorenz is a member of the Seward City Council.
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