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A good old 'Alaskan' Party
80-somethings recount their life stories and Alaska years in Sharon Bushell's new book

By Sandi Gerjevic
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: August 20, 2002) story photo
Sharon Bushell applauds as names of people included in her book, "We Alaskans," are read aloud during a book release reception Sunday at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
Helena Andree signs the chapter of "We Alaskans" devoted to her life story. Andree's is one of 49 oral histories recorded in Bushell's new book. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
Margret Pate visits with Bushell at Sunday's book release reception. Pate is included in Bushell's compilation of stories told by Alaskans. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner / Anchorage Daily News) story photo
Rica Swanson, left, and Ella Wallace thumb through copies of Sharon Bushell's book, "We Alaskans," during a book release reception Sunday at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Swanson and Wallace are included in Bushell's compilation of stories told by Alaskans. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner / Anchorage Daily News)

Click on photo to enlarge
Sharon Bushell's two children have no memory of their grandfather, Robert Burton, of Port Angeles, Wash. But they do know that he once had a crush on his kindergarten teacher.

In 45 years, he'd never mentioned it to his wife. Why should he? It wasn't important. In fact, when Burton was interviewed by his daughter shortly before his death, he hadn't thought of his teacher in decades. Yet he could still recall the feelings she stirred in him and even a certain dress she wore.

"The idea of this little boy having a crush on his teacher . . . to us, (that was) absolutely precious," said Bushell of herself and her three sisters. If she hadn't urged her dad to tell his story, such details of his life would have been lost.

That was 16 years ago. At a book signing and reception at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art on Sunday, Bushell brushed away tears as she thanked the dozens of subjects who had helped her produce "We Alaskans." The newly published book is a collection of oral histories Bushell began taking down years ago, inspired in part by the death of her father.

Many of the 49 people whose stories she compiled attended the reception and signed books along with Bushell. Some arrived in pressed suits. Others weren't so formal. Some required walkers or wheelchairs. Others strolled in as if it were cocktail hour at the Cabana. About everyone was at least 80 years old.

"I feel like I've made a lot of really good friends," Bushell told them. At one point, with elders, their families and autograph seekers mingling, sharing stories and laughing in the museum's Alaska-themed gallery, Bushell stopped, looked around and said: "This is just what I wanted. A big, old party for people."

Helen March was there, chatting with her friend, Margret Pate. Both are in the book. March signed her name and gave everyone she spoke to a grandmotherly wink. People called her "the cover girl," since a photo of March showing off a halibut catch appears on the book's cover.

Years ago, March and Bushell were neighbors in Homer. At the time, March was struggling with a written record of her life -- she wanted her children and four grandkids to know the facts. So she set herself up with a computer and began the project. When her life story droned out like a high-school book report, she asked Bushell for help.

The two did several interviews, which Bushell typed up verbatim. With March editing her own life, eventually the two produced a 50-page text, with photos.

March and her family were delighted. And the method by which they worked became Bushell's modus operandi for producing numerous Homer histories.

At first, she did it as a vanity business. Then, two years ago, Bushell had the opportunity to publish the stories as a standing feature of the Daily News' Life section.

The response was gratifying and it became obvious to Bushell that the features should lead to a book.

Bushell's own Alaska story is worth telling. She came at the insistence of a girlfriend, intending to make a killing on the pipeline. The girls loaded down a 1966 Ford station wagon and hit the Alcan.

The overly-taxed vehicle broke down in Talkeetna, however, where Bushell and her buddy somehow stayed five years. At a Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival, Bushell met her husband, Johnny, and later moved to Homer.

As her storytelling business got going, Bushell found she had a knack for drawing people out. They'd tell her things they'd never told their families. When she turned off the tape recorder, they'd sometimes tell her their secrets. Just to get it off their chests, she figured.

When Bushell would ask for a photograph, her subjects would usually offer something recent, taken with grandchildren. Oh, no, she'd say, and make them hunt their old photo albums.

Bushell prefers showing people in their prime. Her stories are typically published with vintage photographs; the reader doesn't see how the subject has aged. That gives the stories a certain power and makes it easier for the reader to place the subject in time. It also circumvents a prejudice of aging.

The oral history project, said Bushell, has diffused her own fears of aging.

"That really is an understatement," she said. "I almost look forward to being much older because, in so many cases, these people have taught me so much about character and what really matters."

Bushell's work is not journalistic. If her subject chooses to leave out life's major failures, that's fine with her. If someone tells her more than he or she meant to and later asks to omit it, Bushell does so, even when the story suffers. She trusts people to be truthful. And she never publishes a story without her subject's approval.

These are meant to be people's stories, as they want to be remembered, she said. Anyway, if we were telling our stories, wouldn't we all leave out a thing or two?

Bushell works with two hand-held tape recorders to avoid equipment failure. She shuns video cameras and, despite endless transcribing, prefers to work in a text format because you can always go back and edit, to make it just right, she said.

People love to hold and thumb through a book, while videos tend to sit on the shelf, she pointed out. A video is passive; a book is not. Bushell uses the "as told to" device to capture the cadence of voices.

Her best interview technique?

"I treat everybody as if they were age 52, which is my age."

Bushell found that when she approached elders as contemporaries, rather than in a patronizing fashion, they opened up to her and "became real." She usually begins an interview by apologizing for being late, then listing the reasons. She chats as if with a friend. She doesn't speak to her subjects as if they're children.

"I just assume the people can take it," she said. "They've lived long enough that they can hear something other than that pandering style."

Bushell has no trouble finding subjects. They're always popping up. In fact, she'll leave this week on a two-month tour of Alaska, searching for more stories. She and a sister will camp, meet new people and probably have a blast, she said.

Bushell already has a few names on her list -- even if they don't know it yet. She avoids giving people a lot of notice because it ties them up in knots. Most of her subjects have never given an interview and would wonder why anyone was interested.

"I specifically did not go after Norman Vaughan or Ruth Jefford or the Rasmusons or any of the big dog people who've gotten their fair share of publicity," Bushell said. "I wanted to tell the story of what are, in my opinion, the real people, who did not have (a) spotlight on them, to record their accomplishments."

Bushell found enormous dignity, courage and fortitude in lives quietly lived.

Not knowing how the book's subjects look today made the museum event fascinating. The "Alaskans" all wore name tags, which identified them for autograph seekers.

Capt. Jack Johnson was impeccably dressed and sported a handlebar mustache. In the book, he appears as a lad of 14, outfitted in sailor stripes. When Johnson signed books, anchor tattoos on each hand were prominent. He was 13 when he got them, he said. Some joint called Shanghai Reds. The year was 1940.

According to his memoirs, Johnson sailed in the last of the big square-riggers around Cape Horn. His story reads like a boy's adventure novel. As a child, he had polio and spent two years in a Seattle hospital -- a year of that in an iron lung. To help him recuperate, his father had him row a dory, standing up. A family friend taught him the sailing trade and the sea took hold.

From the book: "My father died January 12, 1940. As the school year was coming to a close, my foster brother, Andy, and I wanted to go to sea again. We were too young to sail in American ships, so we shipped in the "Mirabooka," a Swedish ship, as ordinary seamen. We crossed the equator on my 14th birthday, heading south toward Australia . . ."

While signing his name, Johnson eyed his image in the book.

"Handsome rascal," he said. "Haven't changed a bit."

Daily News reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at

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