Category Archives: people

Ada Blackjack

“The Female Robinson Crusoe

Ada Blackjack and son Bennett

In 1921, Ada Blackjack had been abandoned by her husband outside of Nome, Alaska with a five year old son who suffered from tuberculosis. She needed money to care for her son, so she joined an Arctic Expedition to Wrangel Island, which was being put together by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition sought an Alaska Native seamstress who spoke english. Ada was hired on, and left for Wrangel Island in September 1921.

Ada Blackjack with the Wrangel Island expedition team

The expedition itself, was on thin ice from the very beginning. The goal was for the team to travel to Wrangel Island to claim it for the British Empire, even though the British government had shown little interest in the island previously. Stefansson, who organized the entire expedition, had no intention of going himself. Instead, four men: Allan Crawford, 20, Lorne Knight, 28, Fred Maurer, 28, and Milton Galle, 19, went with Blackjack, 23, and Vic the cat, age unknown, to claim the island.

The team had enough supplies to last six months, although Stefansson assured the expedition members that wild game would be easy to find.

Wrangel Island off of the Siberian Coast

The first year went relatively well, but by the end of autumn 1922, game had suddenly diminished from the island. By January 1923, the expedition was in trouble. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle left on foot across the sea ice to Siberia for help. Knight, who was suffering from scurvy, was left behind with Blackjack and Vic. The three men who went out on foot were never seen or heard from again. Ada cared for the ailing Knight for six months, until his death in June.

Allan Crawford and Victoria the Cat

For the next three months, Ada Blackjack was alone on the island. She trapped fox, shot birds, and patrolled for polar bear. She even used the expedition camera gear to take selfies outside of camp.

On August 20, 1923, almost two full years from first arriving on Wrangel Island, the schooner Donaldson arrived to rescue the last surviving member of the expedition. The crew found Blackjack doing quite well for herself, stating: she “mastered her environment so far that it seems likely she could have lived there another year, although the isolation would have been a dreadful experience.”

Blackjack took her money from the expedition, which was less than promised, retrieved her son, and avoided the spotlight. Stefansson profited greatly from the failed expedition, but none of that money went to Blackjack. She spent much of her adult life in poverty. She did remarry, and had a second son, Billy. Bennett died in 1972 at the age of 58 from a stroke. Ada Blackjack passed away on May, 29 1983 at the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska. Blackjack is buried at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, next to her son Bennett.


Connery, Sean Connery

Truly, one of a kind. Rest in peace, Sir Sean Connery.

On this Dia de los Muertos, let’s pause to remember all of those who have passed before us. This year, there have been many to remember.

A sea of marigolds


Sid

Sid Hartman with his trusty tape recorder

Growing up in Minnesota, there were two people that everyone knew by only their first name. One was Prince, the other was Sid.

Sid Hartman was the sports reporter for the Minneapolis paper. He also had a show on the juggernaut, at the time, WCCO radio.

Sid literally started out on the ground floor of the newspaper business, selling the papers on street corners of North Minneapolis when he was nine years old. In 1936, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to take over the best intersections. By 1944 Sid had made his way to the sports department, and he wrote his first column for the Minneapolis paper in 1945.

Sid with Twins legend Rod Carew

From the sports desk, Sid became the de facto GM of the Minneapolis Lakers, when he was 27. He delivered the $15,000 check himself, at the Detroit airport, to have the Detroit Gems, of the NBL, to move to Minneapolis. The Lakers won the NBL title their first year. Behind George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers would go on to win 5 NBA titles before moving to Los Angeles. While doing that, he kept his day job as a sports reporter. He was also instrumental in the Washington Senators moving to Minnesota, to become the Minnesota Twins.

Sid came out of an era where the term conflict of interest was rarely uttered. He considered himself a reporter, not a writer. Sid based his entire reporting ethos on building relationships. Sid was an unapologetic “homer”. He loved Minnesota and its sports teams, but nothing was more dear to his heart than the University of Minnesota.

Sid with UofM great Tom Chorske, and Lord Stanley’s Cup

The gag line, “Sid’s close, personal friends” started on ‘CCO radio. From Bud Grant to George Steinbrenner to Bobby Knight, everyone in the sports world seemed to be Sid’s close, personal friend. When Grant was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was Sid who introduced him.

Callers to Sid’s radio show who disagreed with him on any issue, were dismissed as “Geniuses”. How dare we second guess the “experts”. Of course, disagreeing with Sid was half the fun, it was the main reason we called in.

Sid passed away on Sunday at 100 years of age. His final column was in that morning’s paper. It was his 119th column of 2020. Impressive. Sid had 21,235 bylines with his name on them for the Minneapolis paper over a career span of 75 years. He also spent over 65 years on the radio, doing one sports show or another.

STRIB writer Jim Souhan wrote recently that it wasn’t like Minneapolis had their version of Sid Hartman, Minneapolis had the only one. There wasn’t another version in New York, or Chicago or Los Angeles. Sid was unique; there was only the one.

There have been a lot of tributes and online salutes, but the one by Ryan Saunders, the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves was the one that hit home the most. The final line says:

Sid was a remarkable example of living life to the fullest and finding your passion – may we all learn from the legacy he leaves.

Rest in Peace Mr Hartman


Will Rogers & Wiley Post

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Will Rogers & Wiley Post in Alaska

In August of 1935, Will Rogers and his pilot, Wiley Post, flew throughout the then Territory of Alaska.  Post, a well known aviator, would fly the Lockheed Orion-Explorer, while Rogers pounded out newspaper columns on his typewriter.

They left Fairbanks on August 15 for Barrow.  Encountering terrible weather, they managed to find a break in the fog, and landed their floatplane on the waters of Walakpa Bay, and asked some Inupiat hunters where they were.

“15 miles from Barrow.”

Post & Rogers returned to the plane, and took off.  At an altitude of approximately 50 feet, the engine died, and the plane nosed-dived into the lagoon.  The engine was driven back into the cabin, and crushed Post.  Rogers was thrown from the plane.  Both men appeared to die instantly.

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The wrecked Lockheed after the crash

Will Rogers was easily the most recognized and beloved celebrity at the time of his death.  His columns were read by an estimated 40 million people, and syndicated in over 600 newspapers.

Post was a famed aviator, and the two men had planned on flying across the Bering Sea to Siberia after their stops in Alaska.  A Trans-Siberian flight on to Moscow was also part of the agenda.

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Memorial to Rogers & Post at the Pioneer Air Museum

Two metal crosses were constructed to honor both Post and Rogers.

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The crosses were deemed too heavy to transport by air from Fairbanks to the crash site near the Walakpa River, and approximately 11 miles from the community of Barrow.

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The crosses are displayed at the Pioneer Air Museum in Fairbanks.

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A marker and monument that stand near the crash site

 

 


A Tribute:

In all the photos, there you were, right in the middle of the gathering.  Often surrounded by kids, and almost always wearing a huge smile.  My favorite photo of you though, is an old, black & white one, and it’s just you.  A young high school athlete, looking confident, about to go on a date, standing in front of a first car.  A 1950 Ford.

We went through some tough times, the three of us, with you leading the way by example.  Somehow, even working two jobs and extremely long hours, you were always there.  There were dance recitals and football games; you must have rushed through the entire day, but there you were, off to the side, quietly watching.

When you couldn’t be there, you found someone who could.  I often wondered at that sacrifice.  How difficult was it for you to allow someone to stand in for you?  There were camping trips, fishing trips, outdoor adventures that you knew fueled a flame, yet you had the bravery to allow another to strike the match.  I never asked you about that, and I never told you, that I knew all along, that it was you who provided the tinder.

There were a lot of sporting events, however.  Williams Arena, Mariucci, Memorial Stadium, The Met, the Dome.  We ran the gamut. We sat in the rain, in the cold, in the sun.  We saw the first Hobey winner in action.  We tailgated. We watched as the goal posts came down and were carried across the parking lot, but you wouldn’t let me liberate your seats, even though I brought a tiny socket set for the occasion.  You were the one to give me that set in the first place, which I may have reminded you of at the time.

I followed a different trail, and I know it was difficult for you.  Every year, my eyes seemed to search a little further west, and eventually I found my way to Alaska.  That fact did not thrill you, but you tolerated it, as best as you could.  Every year you came up, and every year I hoped you would see what I saw, feel what I felt.  Then one year, we were sitting at the gate, waiting for you to board the airplane for the flight back to civilization.  That one had been a fun visit; we had gone all over the state, and we had met a lot of different people.  You said, “I get it now.  Alaska suits you.  You belong here.”  That was probably the best gift I have ever received.

Our paths have diverged now.  Advice I will have to obtain from the archives.  Luckily for me, the archives are full.  Pictures may be few, but memories run rampant.  Life is a short game, but you played it extremely well.  You taught a lot of people that kindness was a strength, and wisdom something hard earned, tainted by experience.

I do not have any answers.  Mostly there are only questions right now, and a huge empty void.  Over the years, I have shared a poem with a few people that I originally found by reading Ernest Gann.  The poem is often attributed to Henry Van Dyke, or the Rev. Luther F. Beecher.  Take your pick, but for me, it originated with Gann.

I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze,
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch her until she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There! She’s gone!”
Gone where? Gone from my sight – that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side,
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of her destination.
Her diminished size is in me, and not in her.

And just at the moment
when someone at my side says: “There! She’s gone!”
there are other eyes that are watching for her coming;
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:
“There she comes!”

 


Truly, One of a Kind

Flashback Film Friday:


Walter Harper Day

Walter Harper

Today, 7 June, is the first Walter Harper Day. Harper, whom I have written about on here before, is one of my favorite historical Alaskans.

It was on this day in 1913, when Harper became the first known person to stand on the summit of Denali.

Harper tragically died at the age of 25, along with his young bride, Frances Wells Harper, with the sinking of the Princess Sophia in 1918.


Rest in Peace, Senior

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Larry Ball Sr; Induction into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame; Photo credit: The Curator

Larry Ball Sr, the father of a good friend of mine, passed away from Covid-19 complications over the weekend.

I spent several months in Iowa in 2007-08, and was lucky enough to get to know Senior, or LBS, as he was known to many of us.  I worked, i.e. volunteered, as a glorified bouncer on the Second Floor of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame during races.  LBS and his family had a suite above, and I would wander up to see them at some point during every race, and Senior was always a most gracious host.  In 2008, LBS was inducted into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame, as the successful car owner of Ball Racing.

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Photo credit: Ball Racing, Inc; Jeff Tuttle in #3, 1994

The last time I saw LBS in Des Moines, he and Saint Donna, his wife, put me up for a night as I spent some time in DSM.  Senior kept me up half the night arguing a point that was desperately important to him.  The best part of that conversation, was that we were debating something that we were in total agreement on. To this day, I’m not sure if he was hammering the point home because I wasn’t a convincing accomplice, or because he expected me to come up with a plan of attack, because he had already done the hard part by detailing the problem.  It’s a night that I look back on fondly.

LBS was a frequent visitor here between The Circles.  I remember hearing from him one February, because my posts had been very infrequent, and he wanted to know what was up.  When I told him it was February in Fairbanks, and there wasn’t much going on to write about, he was unconvinced and told me to try harder.

Over the course of the years, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, and the great surprise and reward of travel is not the locations, but the people I have met by chance.  A random hockey game in Fairbanks brought Des Moines back into my orbit, which in turn, brought me into the orbit of Larry Ball, Sr.  What a rewarding hockey game that turned out to be.

Rest in peace, Larry.  You will be missed by many, and East Des Moines will never be the same.

 

 


Rest in Peace

America’s Poet: John Prine

Former Navy mechanic, and self-taught guitarist: Bill Withers

Patriarch of a jazz dynasty: Ellis Marsalis


Rest in Peace Little Bird

Jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath passed away this week.  Heath performed on over 100 albums, and wrote over 125 compositions.

Heath’s saxophone play, and slim build, earned him the nickname “Little Bird” by the late 1940’s.

Jimmy Heath was 93.