Homer icon, cultural activist dead at 78

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

Perhaps the closest thing Homer will ever have to a patron saint died at 11:22 p.m. Tuesday at his home, surrounded by family.

Brother Asaiah Bates leaves behind a community greatly saddened by his departure, but forever enriched by the touch of his gentle spirit. He was 78.

He lived by a simple philosophy, that in all people there is goodness, uttering no words to disparage anyone, but posing questions that often left others rethinking their points of view.

Known far and wide as Brother Asaiah, he called everyone those same familial honorifics of "brother" and "sister."

He shared freely of himself and his temporal treasures, gifting tots whose preschool program faced budget cuts with donations, high school seniors stepping into the halls of academia with scholarships, even deeding land in the heart of town to the city of Homer if only it would make it a park.

Asaiah entered South Peninsula Hospital several weeks ago suffering from a failing heart. It was days before many knew he was there. He saw few visitors, by his own wishes. Family arrived from other parts of the country to be at his side.

About two weeks ago, he went home to be amid familiar surroundings.

Brother Asaiah was born Claude Donald Bates in Greenville, S.C., April 19, 1921. He was not an educated man, he would often say, but he learned from life's experiences as few have.

He served as a nose gunner on a bomber in the Pacific during World War II and was decorated several times, but said he saw things that would change his life.

He came to Homer in the mid-1950s, a follower of Krishna Venta, the aesthetic who led a group of people called the "Barefooters," known as the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love Fountain of the World. They settled in Fox River Valley. It was Venta who gave Asaiah that name.

The movement mostly died after Venta was killed in an explosion in 1958, but Asaiah maintained his connection to the philosophy that negativity destroys and positive energy builds.

Asaiah was known to attend services in all the churches in the Homer area, often praising sermons delivered by their pastors, though he was just as likely to refer to them as "spiritual souls" and "cool and groovy cats."

In the 1960s, the hippies saw him as a kind of guru. He encouraged them against the use of drugs. By the early 1970s, he had become a kind of liaison between the city's old-timers and the newcomers. Mayor Hazel Heath appointed him to a vacancy on the city council in the early 1973. He was elected to a two-year term that fall.

Homer resident Helen Jackson and her husband, R.B. Jackson, also were Barefooters, arriving here in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Helen said she believed Asaiah was ready for death and had been preparing for it.

"He wasn't afraid or unhappy," she said. "He is one of those very unusual people. 'Remarkable' is maybe a better word."

Jackson said that when she arrived, Asaiah was mainly responsible for seeing that the Fountain was supplied with food and other supplies.

His effect on Homer grew over time, she said.

"The first thing that pops into my mind is that he made people more aware that we all belong to the same family, whether it's religious or otherwise. He helped unify people. He tried to understand everybody from their standpoint and view. He didn't intrude on their beliefs, but would make statements that hopefully would make that person look at things more broadly."

Mayor Jack Cushing said Asaiah's effect on Homer was tremendous.

"He was a supporter of the idea that people can effect change in a peaceful manner without anger," Cushing said. "That will definitely be missed. I'll personally miss his presence at our meetings. He was a very balanced, calming person."

Don Ronda, former Homer High School principal and teacher and a former Homer City Council member, has known Asaiah since the late 1950s.

"It is an important part of Homer that just passed away," Ronda said. "I've known him ever since we came to Homer when they still had the Barefooters. I haven't seen him change from basically being a loving individual. I never heard him say a bad word about anybody."

"God, what do you say," said longtime friend Lois Irvin. "He meant so much to the community in so many different ways. That's going to touch everybody."

Irvin said Asaiah was not afraid of dying just as he was unafraid of living.

"What a privilege it was knowing him and working with him," she said. "It's going to seem strange" without him.

Councilman Luke Welles said he didn't know Asaiah well, except for his frequent appearances and testimony at council meetings.

"He was very involved in the community," Welles said. "He represented a whole other segment of Homer, blending some of Homer's colorful past and bringing it into the future. He came here with the Barefooters and the hippie movement and then stuck around to see the changes. I imagine he went through changes himself," he said. "I'll miss those colorful letters to the editor."

Rep. Gail Phillips called him a gentle, kind spirit and a unique human being.

"I've known him for over 20 years and grew to appreciate his generosity of spirit more all the time," she said. "Alaska has its share of 'characters,' and Asaiah certainly will go down in the annals of Alaska's history as one of our most loved characters."

Phillips said Asaiah always made her look at both sides of an issue. He often presented a different viewpoint, but was always respectful of the differences of opinion of others.

"I will certainly miss him and his wonderful positive outlook on life," she said.

Asaiah often expressed the desire that there be little if any fuss over his leaving. In a letter to the Homer News last fall to "the Beautiful Citizens Dancing on the Wheel of Time and Destiny," he made several simple requests about how his body was to be treated and buried. He said the location didn't matter.

"Whoever places the body in the earth, walk away and never look back," he said.

He asked numerous times that no fuss be made over his passing, and as such no memorial service had been planned as of Wednesday afternoon.

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