Leon Galbraith finished Skyview High School with a grade-point average of 3.95 on a scale of 4, missing the post of salutatorian by a hair and finishing up as third in the Class of 2001. The contest between him and two girls was so close the counselors' office had all three write valedictory addresses and stand by.
He was philosophical about not getting to read his speech. It was about thanking people and about looking forward to new challenges, he said.
"Four years really flew by," he said of leaving high school. "I've grown a lot, gained a lot more confidence."
In the beginning, high school in Soldotna was a big change for the young man from Cooper Landing. He was born at home there. For his first nine years of education he attended the rural kindergarten through grade eight Cooper Landing School.
For many of those years, he and one friend were the only students in their grade. He graduated middle school in a class of five and was chosen the Masonic Outstanding Student that year.
"It was kind of a fun little school," he said. "It's just a nice, small community."
Summers, Galbraith works with his dad, Gary, for the family business, Alaska Rivers Company, which the Galbraiths have had since 1974. They take rafters down the Kenai River.
They also run a 40-foot charter boat out of Seward, called the Estimate, which doubles as a floating home on Prince William Sound.
The ventures mean he has a ready-made job every summer. His duties run the gamut from office management to spending time out on the water.
"It's real nice to have a family business," he said. "I like deckhanding on our boat in Seward."
But when Galbraith was 12, tragedy struck the family. His mother and brother were killed in a car wreck, leaving him and his dad alone. Circumstances taught him to take responsibility early, he said.
For almost two years, he rode the bus from Cooper Landing to Skyview. Students catch the morning bus about 6 a.m., and the route takes an hour each way. He recalled doing homework or catching up on sleep during the long commute.
To participate in after-school activities, Galbraith juggled a lot of rides. Despite the challenge, he managed to play basketball, football and baseball. Often he had to wait around for hours after school and sometimes did not get home until 9 or 10 p.m.
"My dad helped me a lot," he recalled.
His sophomore year, his dad got a house in Soldotna just off Kalifornsky Beach Road.
"It was really nice when we got the house built down here. I got my license my sophomore year, too," he said. "The place is about five minutes from school, so I could sleep late and still make it to school."
Much of his junior year, he lived alone at the Soldotna house while his father worked his winter job as an avalanche technician for the state. Then his dad retired and took up traveling.
The highlight of Galbraith's junior year was when his dad took his son and all his employees on an extended rafting trip to the Grand Canyon. It involved missing a month of school, but was worth it.
"It was really neat," Galbraith said. "It's like you're on a different planet for 18 days."
Senior year he mostly lived at the Soldotna place. About once a week he went out to Cooper Landing, which he still considers his primary home, to check on the pets and house.
Being in Soldotna made it easier for him to participate in school activities. He was in the National Honor Society and helped build the class bench. His junior and senior years he decided to try something new in athletics, so he took up cross-country running, skiing and soccer.
Through all the turmoil and long rides, Galbraith made schoolwork a top priority. Looking back over four years, he listed Clark Fair and Dave Carey as favorite teachers along with Kent Peterson, who coached him. The class that made the biggest impression on him was principals of technology, which he took twice.
Fair described Galbraith as a personable, thoughtful young man who works hard.
"Leon is extremely diligent," he said. "He's also extremely likable.
"He can be one of the guys, but he can also discuss things that are philosophical or intellectual," Fair said.
Galbraith finished school with a career pathway certification in industrial engineering. He earned $9,600 in scholarships plus a tuition waiver from the University of Alaska Scholars Program.
He plans to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study electrical engineering. He did not want to go out to a big place where he might feel lost, he said.
"I think staying in state has helped me with scholarships," he added.
Although he remains close to his Alaska roots, he has an eye on university exchange programs at the University of Oregon and in Copenhagen, Denmark.
For now, though, his dad has given him a week off as a graduation present.
"Normally, I would be rowing boats by now," he said.
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