Friday, August 14, 2009
A Flag for Jesse Lee flies in Seward
A Flag for Jesse Lee flies in Seward
By Dan Walker
SEWARD- A while back, I went to a flag raising. It was a small event, just my wife, Billy “Blackjack” Johnson and me, raising the Alaska flag above the Jesse Lee Home in Seward. Billy smiled and said, “We raise this flag in honor of Benny.” That was the closest e had to a speech. There was no band or honor guard. We hadn’t even planned on raising the flag, but as my wife says, “When Billy ‘Blackjack’ Johnson comes to town, things start to happen.
Billy was actually leaving town when the flag raising occurred. On his way back to Anchorage, he’s stopped at Jesse Lee to take a few more pictures of his boyhood home. We were at our home discussing what to do with the hat he’d left behind when the phone rang. Billy need our help. During his side trip, he noticed the monument in front of Jesse Lee had the appropriate plaque and flagpole – but no flag. No “eight stars of gold on a field of blue” where our flag was created and first flown.
So Billy stopped at a store and bought an Alaskan flag and 50 feet of cord to solve that oversight. He needed a ladder to thread the cord through the top of the pole. So off we went with two ladders and our summer optimism to help an old Eskimo raise and Alaska flag in honor of Benny Benson.
The flagpole was too tall for my ladder, so I left my wife and Billy standing in the shadow of the old, three-story, wooden home with its empty, black windows staring down at them and drove to the Catholic Church. I borrowed a ladder without asking and left a note. (If you can’t get forgiveness at a church, where can you?)
Then I was back at Jesse Lee, climbing a ladder leaning against a thin, metal flagpole, hoping on the hope that it was trong enough to hold me. Snaking the quarter-inch line through the eye at the top of the pole, I scooted down and attached the flag. Then I handed the line to Billy, who beamed at me with that schoolboy smile. I snapped pictures with his camera as the flag rose slowly to the top.
There was so much force, history and emotion around that moment, standing uncer a cloudy sky with that little man in the baseball cap and jacket as he raised the state flag his boyhood friend had designed in the home they both shared. It was a moment without litugy, pomp or ceremony, yet imbued with some sort of inexpressible significance. We talked of the need to plant forget-me-nots around the concrete pillar with its commemorative bronze plaque. Billy showed us a place where little boys had brought home a hornet’s nest to entertain a playmate who lay in an isolation room, dying from tuberculosis.
Started by Methodist missionaries in Unalaska as a home for Native orphans, the Jesse Lee Home moved to Seward in 1925.
After the earthquake, its name moved to Anchorage, where it remains today in the form of a home for the mentally handicapped.
Billy “Blackjack” Johnson and his brother came to the Jesse Lee Home in Seward after their mother in Nome was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Billy lived in the home for 10 years, then returned to a subsistence life in Nome, where he lived the day-to-day life of the old ways. He went on to serve in Europe duing World War II, After the war, he stayed in Germany, where his skill in languages was employed. Active in the Native lands-claim legislation, Billy served as a lobbyist and organized the 13th Regional Corp., composed of Alaska Natives who live outside the state.
Jesse Lee Home has been vacnt for three decades now, abandoned after the 1964 earthquake. It stands on a hill in the northwest part of town gutted and weather-beaten. The growing neighborhood is crowding it. The spruce and alders try to vover it. A few more yeats, and the elements will tumble it to the ground.
But Billy is on a mission. He wants to save the old building from rot and ruin. He wants people to remember where Alaska’s flag was created and first flown. He remembers all the children who found shelter, food and companionship at Jesse Lee. He fears the building will be lost and, with it, our memory of what took place there. He passes no judgment about a place that educated Alaska Natives in the white man’s way at the expense of their ethnic culture. For Billy, this is about home, about remembering a childhood and the people who shared it.