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Kotzebue lawmaker Adams attended -- then rescued -- Sitka boarding school

Susan B. Andrews,John Creed
John Creed photo

When Al Adams finished eighth grade in the late 1950s, his hometown of Kotzebue did not have a public high school.

So Adams, the influential former state lawmaker who died Aug. 13 at age 70, moved a thousand miles away to southeast Alaska to attend Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. In those days, this Bureau of Indian Affairs-operated boarding school mostly served rural Alaska Native students with no high school in their own village.

Sitka-born Gil Truitt was young Albert’s eleventh-grade history teacher. He was impressed by the energetic, popular teenager from up north who was bright and an excellent student.

“It was obvious this young man was going to be somebody,” Truitt said.

Mt. Edgecumbe is credited with bonding many Alaska Native youth who helped seed a statewide leadership network that would trigger social, political and economic reform in Alaska in the 1960s and lead to passage in Congress of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

This landmark legislation granted Alaska Natives title to 44 millions of land. For the 380 million acres of lands lost in the settlement, ANCSA capitalized more than 200 village corporations and 13 Native regional corporations, which since have amassed considerable economic and political clout.

For example, after incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lost her 2010 primary election to tea party candidate Joe Miller, she mounted a long-shot write-in campaign. Murkowski’s surprising victory in the general election was largely attributed to massive independent contributions from Alaska’s Native regional corporations.

Recognizing his alma mater’s role in changing the course of Alaska history, Adams never forgot Edgecumbe for the rest of his life after graduating in 1961.

“Sen. Adams was one of the most loyal of Mt. Edgecumbe graduates,” said Truitt, today an Alaska historian and himself a member of Edgecumbe’s first graduating class of 1948.

In the 1980s, Adams found himself applying his Edgecumbe-inspired leadership skills to fighting to save Edgecumbe itself from being shut down forever.

In the 1970s, the state had been building scores of new high schools in rural villages so local students could graduate in their own communities. The BIA also had turned over operation of most village schools to newly established local school districts.

But in 1983 when the BIA stopped running Mt. Edgecumbe High School, it simply closed its doors. Believing up-and-coming rural and Alaska Native students still needed the boarding-school option, a determined Al Adams joined with others to re-open Edgecumbe.

Some urban legislators, however, considered Edgecumbe an unnecessary, expensive, out-of-date luxury with shrinking educational value. Adams had to convince colleagues in Juneau that Edgecumbe history was filled with notable success stories with many more yet to come.

Of course, in those days if urban legislators ignored Rep. Adams, the powerful state House Finance chair, they did so at their own peril.

Adams angled for the school to re-open under state control. And in 1985, the fabled institution was in fact re-born, today administered by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“It was (Adams’) work that reopened Edgecumbe,” said Truitt, adding that while others helped, Adams spearheaded the school’s revival.

“And he never sought credit for that,” Truitt said.

Today Mt. Edgecumbe’s enrollment stands at about 400 mostly rural students from throughout the state, although many young Alaskans from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau also attend. More than 90 percent of the students are Alaska Native. Edgecumbe students excel in science, welding, student government, youth court, a wide range of sports including basketball, wrestling, volleyball and cross-country, and numerous other academic and extracurricular activities.

At a time when far fewer Alaska Natives could pursue education following high school, after Adams graduated from Edgecumbe in 1961, he attended both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and RCA Technical Institute.

Today as many as nine out of 10 Mt. Edgecumbe graduates pursue postsecondary education or training. Alumni also continue to assume leadership roles in Alaska business, education, public service, and other fields. Many graduates attend the University of Alaska or some other in-state school, while others attend some of the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Mt. Edgecumbe educators tout the school’s reputation for leading young Alaskans toward postsecondary success, although parents likely anguish as much today as when Adams first left home for Edgecumbe in 1957.

“It’s a huge leap of faith for parents to send their children away at 14 years old,” said Randy Hawk, Mt. Edgecumbe’s superintendent. “It’s not easy to send your kids away even when they’re 18. But Edgecumbe kids, when they’re here they do a lot of maturing, and when they go off to college they’ve already made the transition, so to speak.”

Edgecumbe lost an effective voice in Juneau with Adams’ recent passing because he talked up the school during legislative sessions, Hawk said.

Adams served on Mt. Edgecumbe’s advisory board for the final six years of his life.

“Al would talk with the players in the legislature to let them know Edgecumbe’s needs, but not in an official capacity,” Hawk said. “He did that on his own.”

Whenever Edgecumbe sports teams competed in Juneau, Adams also had pizza delivered to the athletes and their entourage, Truitt recalled.

Statewide Public Education Advocate

Adams might have helped resuscitate Edgecumbe, but he also bolstered public education at all levels and locations statewide as a lawmaker and lobbyist.

“Al was a constant in support for education issues in rural Alaska,” said Brian Rogers, chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “That also meant, of course, support for the university, as long as the university was supportive of rural students and their issues.”

Susan Andrews and John Creed have taught in the humanities at Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, since the late 1980s. This story originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.