Mike Sweeney finds a bit o'luck on the peninsula

Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2002

According to Irish folklore, a leprechaun is a creature that resembles humans, possesses powers of magic, may be helpful or harmful and is able to become invisible at will, which permits mixing unseen with human society.

Mike Sweeney of Soldotna fits the bill -- almost.

First, he looks exactly like a human being. Second, his friends say his gift of speech borders on magic, although "unique" might be a better choice of words. And he is known to one and all for his good deeds. But the way Mike's friend Merrill Sikorski tells it, he's unable to pass through human society without being recognized.

"The leprechaun Sweeney," Sikorski said, launching into a story about the time Sikorski's son Adam found himself in a bit of trouble while a student at Soldotna High School. The consequences of his actions came to an estimated $800.

"In looking for a way for him to repay the damage that was done, I went to Mike Sweeney and asked if he had anything the boy could do," Sikorski said. "And he put him to work until he paid off the damages."

Several years later, Mike was in Reno, hundreds of miles from Soldotna, enjoying an evening at one of the casinos. As it happened, Adam, who was then a student at the University of Nevada Reno, was in the same casino that night. Seeing his old boss, he went up to say hello.

"Mike thought he was in a faraway place," Sikorski said. "But he couldn't get away from his good deeds."

Besides that, Mike didn't recognize Adam.

"He's helped so many people in so many ways that he's totally even forgotten," Sikorski said. "But the people he's helped, those are the things that they remember."

Through his business, Sweeney's Clothing, Mike became active in the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. It was there and through a mutual love of snowmachining, that he and Rep. Ken Lancaster, former mayor of Soldotna, became acquainted.

"He's just a great guy," Lancaster said. "He's constantly giving to the community of his time and his money. Anybody that goes in to the store and asks for money for the community always gets something. You never walk out empty handed."

Born in Seattle, Mike spent five years of his childhood in Alaska when his father managed the Northern Commercial Company store in Fairbanks. In 1975, after serving in the U.S. Navy for four years, Mike returned to Alaska and worked for Universal Services at Deadhorse during construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

"We were a camp of 300 (workers)," he said, remembering the atmosphere in Prudhoe Bay in those days. "It was a wild place."

What wasn't different was his eye for selling clothing.

"I sold shirts that said 'Crazy Horse,' 'Happy Horse' and 'Dead Horse' and that was my spending money," he said. "My paychecks went to the bank and I sold the T-shirts to make a few extra bucks."

That same year, his parents, Frank and Margaret, began operating a clothing store on the Kenai Peninsula with Ron Malston. In 1979, Mike moved to Soldotna and became a partner in the business.

"I had retail experience, but no management experience," he said. "I had to learn that on the job."

Some eight years later, he opened Sweeney's Clothing.

"I told him to just buy what people wear -- sweatshirts, underwear and Levi jeans," Frank, said. "We set up a one-man business on sweatshirts, underwear and jeans, and he made a living at it and kept growing. We bought a little bit more and it still kept growing. ... He kept expanding and made it into a working man's clothing store."

Since 1990, the business has been in its current location on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna. It is still known as "the working man's store" and easily identified by its shamrocks.

"You'll notice he has shamrocks in quite a few places," said Frank, who takes fatherly pride in the Irish side of the family.

But that's only half the picture.

"I'm 100 percent Norwegian," said Margaret, who may have given her four sons and one daughter Irish first names, but she made sure they had Norwegian middle names.

However, it's hard to pass for anything except Irish when your last name is Sweeney.

"Who would believe I was Norwegian?" Mike asked.

Besides that, being Irish is an image that fits.

"I'm kind of free and happy. I may get stressed out once in a while and my wife will say I work too much, but, heck, I've got a business to run. And I think people enjoy anything having to do with being Irish. I think it was a good niche for us."

Mike also has been good for his community.

"He's just a great guy all the way around," said Betty Harris, a longtime friend. "He can't be beat for being a friend. He never misses a birthday, never misses anything. I don't know how the guy does it."

In the early 1980s, area businesses occasionally held fashion shows, and Harris remembered modeling men's clothing from Sweeney's store. Harris and Mike are now part of the same snowmachine group and at 7:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Skyview High School, they also attend the same water aerobics class where, according to Harris, Mike "makes a big splash."

Charlie Weimer, who's the senior vice president at First National Bank Alaska in Soldotna, also had a swimming story to share that involved his "true friend" and a trip to Hawaii.

After hearing that fish liked to eat frozen peas, the two headed to a lagoon, outfitted with flippers, goggles and bags of frozen peas. They filled zip-lock bags with the peas, and Mike put the leftovers in the pockets of his swim trunks.

"As we swam out, little did Mike or I know that the peas were filtering out of his swim trunks," Weimer said.

That is, until they became surrounded by fish.

"It was almost scary. There were so many fish around us. We opened the bags of peas and just swam off.

"If somebody told you a story like that, you wouldn't think it could happen."

Weimer has known Mike for more than 16 years.

"As a small businessman, he gives so much to the community," he said. "For every one thing people know about, there's probably three things they don't hear about. Mike's all the good things about why people want to live in a small town."

Ginger Steffy, who met Mike through her involvement in the Soldotna chamber, agreed.

"He just gives more time than I think people realize," said Steffy, Kenai Peninsula College campus director. "He's so sincere. He's not doing it to drum up business. He just sees it as being good for the community."

In fact, according to a story Steffy told, Mike sometimes says things that could be bad for business.

Like the time her husband, Denny, shopped for pants in the store after having gained weight.

"Mike came over to help, and Denny told him the size," said Steffy, laughing as she remembered the incident. "And the first thing out of Mike's mouth was, 'We don't carry them that large.'

"That's not the thing you'd say to a customer, but (Mike) has a way of saying something and then realizing what he's just said and how it might be interpreted, and he blushes and gets flustered."

Mike has been involved with the chamber for more than 15 years. During that time, he has served on the board of directors, been vice president twice and president in 1998. He was named Person of the Year twice and Businessman of the Year once.

His grandfather inspired him to join Rotary International, an organization of 1.2 million business and professional leaders that meet in 160 countries throughout the world. His commitment to never miss a meeting has taken on legendary proportions.

"He hasn't missed a Rotary meeting in 17 years," said Frank. "Not one. No matter where he is, even on a business trip, he'll find a Rotary meeting."

"Anyplace in the world he goes, he has to find Rotary," said Freddie Billingslea, who witnessed Mike's commitment firsthand while touring Ireland and France. "That gets to be pretty tricky sometimes. He would just die if he missed a meeting."

But Sikorski, who holds a similar record for meeting attendance, understands that commitment.

"I remember these old guys used to come to meetings saying they had 22 years perfect attendance and I'd think, 'Don't they have a life?' But Rotary can become part of your life."

In 1991, Mike began the Soldotna's St. Patrick's Day parade. Rain or shine, it is "always on the 17th of March." Starting with little more than a few cars, the festivities have since expanded to include a dinner, auction and fireworks display.

The parade also expanded after Mike married Gloria Larson seven years ago. Gloria is a first-grade teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School.

"I'm in there now on St. Patrick's Day with my first-graders marching in the parade," Gloria said. "And I've got the other two first-grade teachers in on it, too."

Marrying Gloria also expanded the Sweeney family to include Gloria's three children: Krista, 27, is a seventh-grade science teacher at Soldotna Middle School; Blake, 25, is a civil engineer; and Brent, 24, is a student at Kenai Peninsula College. The newest family member is Kellie Jean, 1, the daughter of Krista and her husband, Chad Arthur.

"Mike lights up every time he talks about her," Gloria said of her husband's response to Kellie. "This is a real big part of our lives right now."

Over the last four years, Mike and Gloria have organized the annual appearance of Irish musician and comedian Seamus Kennedy to raise funds for the Kenai Peninsula Literacy Program. Besides performing for an adult crowd at Tides Inn, Kennedy also visits area elementary schools.

From the perspective of Father Richard Tero of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Soldotna, Mike and Gloria "are certainly giving people within the community. I'm sure a lot of their charity is known just to the person who receives it."

Ask Mike what's important to him and the answer comes without delay: "Family, friends and my store." Gloria helps keep that order by making sure time is set aside for family.

"Having a successful business does take him away from home a lot," she said. "For us, we pretty much have to make appointments on the calendar. That seems to be what I've kind of adjusted to at this point. He's going to be busy. He's going to be gone. But there are days that are for us."

A cabin out Ninilchik's Oilwell Road, which is convenient to good snowmachining, offers a place for the family to get away without going too far.

"When he's in town, he feels he needs to be at the store," she said. "In order to provide an environment for him to relax, we have to be away from home. So now we have a cabin that's close by. It's a real treat to have a place to escape to."

What keeps Mike so involved in the community?

"I decided this was my home," he said. "I made the commitment to leave the Seattle area and come up here and these people have accepted me."

According to one leprechaun tradition, if you catch one, he will offer you three magical wishes. And indeed Mike had three wishes for his community.

"I'd like to see good economic growth," he said.

"I'd like to see the continual involvement of merchants to have just the right atmosphere. I don't want to see a Wal-Mart here. I think Fred Meyer is a plus for this community with its ability to draw people from Homer, Seward and throughout the peninsula. They are fair merchants and (area businesses) are able to compete with them if you do your niche. Mine is workwear and outerwear."

And thirdly, he said, "I like the idea that this is still a family community."

For himself, he had one wish.

"I want to be happy. That's the way I want to be. I like to be around people who are happy. Life's too short to be any other way."

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