Who'll get us started?
That's a question constantly on the lips of Soldotna auctioneer Norm Blakeley.
Since 1979, Blakeley has been honing his unique auctioneering skills, not only to grow a thriving business, but to help just about anyone who needs him.
Blakeley owns Blakeley's Auction Company and Alaska Trading and Loan in Soldotna. Since moving from Idaho in 1975, he has worn a variety of hats, working to move heavy-duty oil field equipment, as a hand on a Cook Inlet oil platform and now as a pawn broker and expert auctioneer.
He lives in Sterling with his wife of seven years, Barbara, drives to work each day to run his Soldotna pawn shop and auction company, has two children from a previous marriage, and seven stepchildren. He is 59 years old. Pretty average stuff, really.
But if you ask anyone who knows him, they'll tell you there's more to this hometown huckster than you might think.
In addition to running his business, Blakeley has spent much of his free time giving back to the community. To list all the community projects and groups he's helped out would be impossible, but a partial list includes the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, Peninsula Winter Games, Soldotna Senior Citizens Center, 4-H clubs, Safari Club, Boy Scouts, Ducks Unlimited, Hospice and the Sterling Community Club.
There's more, but it would take someone with a mouth as quick as Norm's to get them all out in time.
He mainly helps by using his rapid-fire auctioneer's bass to cajole potential buyers into paying the highest possible price for goods at charitable events like bake sales and pie auctions.
But that's certainly not all he does.
Just ask Jerry Near, a Soldotna insurance agent who has more than once been at Blakeley's side for one community project or another.
"Norm is typical of a lot of people who I call workhorses in this community. This community is the result of all these folks stepping up and volunteering," Near said.
It was Blakeley and Near who engineered the ice sculpting event at the Peninsula Winter Games. According to Near, the two of them saw a need for a centerpiece event to draw interest to the games.
"We got to looking at this winter games thing, and its kind of been an orphan. We thought of maybe doing the ice carving as sort of an anchor," Near said.
So he and Blakeley went out, rounded up a bunch of donated equipment, and the ice sculpture competition has, in two years, already become a big draw for the games.
Getting such events started is no big deal for Blakeley. Listening to him rattle off his various civic and community projects takes as much concentration as listening to him sell off a rare gun or homemade pie.
"The chamber pie auction, I initiated that. Ducks Unlimited, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Safari Club, Love INC, the Boy Scouts, Hospice ... individual benefits for people," he went on to tell of things he's been involved in.
It seems there's very little he hasn't done in the 27 years since he trucked up the Alaska Highway with his then-wife, Sally, and their five children. But it wasn't always easy, said Blakeley.
In the early days, money was tight, and just getting food on the table -- forget auctioning it off -- was his main pursuit.
"That's when the oil crunch was going on. We loaded up my wife and, let's see, we had five of us and my wife and I," he said, his memories faded, but far from forgotten.
Blakeley said he moved to Idaho because he was broke and owed people money. Alaska was somewhere to make money and pay off creditors, so it was a logical place for the Blakeleys to head.
However, nothing could prepare him for his first days working on the North Slope in the late 1970s. He said he had never given much thought to the perils of working in subfreezing arctic weather.
"Realistically, I don't think most people had. I think we did some things that were not environmentally sound. That was probably a little of ignorance and survival, trying to keep from freezing your butt off. It was a whole new experience for everybody."
Partially out of a desire to find something less bone chilling, and partially to supplement his income, Blakeley said he decided to try auctioneering.
"I went to auction school in Billings, Mont., in 1978. My ex-wife had always been a very ambitious person, and she was actually the one who went there first. We didn't have any real money, and there wasn't anything like (an auction company) around here.
"It doesn't take a lot of capital to get into it, since you're selling everybody else's inventory. Get a clerk system and a microphone and basically, you're in business."
As it turned out, Blakeley had a natural gift for the wheel-and-deal business. He's developed his own signature calling voice, one anyone who's heard easily will recognize. In a measured, easily understood way, he shoots numbers and information into the audience like candy into a parade crowd.
"So, put-it-in-a-five-five-anybody-five?" he rattled off in his office, explaining how he uses his virtuoso skills to entice potential bidders.
"Then, if nobody bids, you have to break it down -- What-about-two-and-a-half?-whattabout-one?-who'll-start-us-off?" he finishes with a chuckle.
Auctioneering takes a bit of psychological ability, too, he said.
"You have to keep a rhythm. You have to know who the bidders are, who's in and where they are. Sometimes I'll have a bidder that's real eager. I'll ignore 'em. Then I'll go back and try to work on 'em. It's a psychological thing," he said.
Blakeley has been using his psychological skills to bring plenty of support and spirit to the city of Soldotna. Near said Blakeley is the kind of person who simply won't take no for an answer when it comes to helping out his community.
"Norm's a very gracious guy, very generous. But he'll say, 'I don't care what it takes, I gotta get it done.'"
Someone who agrees is Soldotna clothing store owner Mike Sweeney. Sweeney said in the more than 20 years he's known Blakeley, he's never seen him cave in to anyone.
"He's just a great guy. A guy I'm glad to know and call a friend. He doesn't take no for an answer. He just finds a way to do it," Sweeney said.
Sweeney and Blakeley have been instrumental in developing the Soldotna chamber's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Blakeley said the parade is a good example of how to get something done simply by being persistent.
"When I was on the chamber board, we were having some financial difficulties. I felt that St. Patrick's Day needed something to make it an event. I asked for fireworks, and they said they didn't care, as long as they didn't have to pay for anything," he recalled, laughing.
"So we had an auction and raised the money to start the fireworks," he said.
Near said that's just the type of thing that makes Blakeley's efforts special.
"Those are the kinds of grass-roots efforts that create a community. That outlasts a lot of things," he said.
However, that fits Norm Blakeley, a grass-roots kind of guy, who grew up living a subsistence lifestyle in Idaho.
"They have a saying, 'two rooms and a bath.' We used to say we had two rooms and a path. We lived on subsistence -- deer and elk and gardens," he said.
He said he believes that sort of lifestyle is where the values for a strong community come from. It's only through the hard work of lots of volunteers, all pulling together, that makes a community grow.
"When people work together, they can get a lot done," he said.
Indeed, Blakeley has gotten a lot done during his 27 years on the peninsula. But for him, it's really no big deal, said Sweeney.
"He's donated a lot of his time to this community. He's got a great business and a great family. He's just done a lot."
From auctioning off pies, to sculpting ice to lending a helping hand or lighting fireworks, Blakeley is just one of those people out there in the community doing his part to help. A workhorse.
So the answer to that ageless auctioneer's question is actually pretty simple.
Who'll get us started?
Norm Blakeley, that's who.
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