“Bob was first and foremost a journalist. A terrific newsman,” says Thad Poulson.
Poulson is the editor and publisher of the Daily Sitka Sentinel. In 1968 Poulson was the lone Associated Press correspondent for the entire state of Alaska, based in Juneau. He met Bob DeArmond through some mutual friends, and discovered that he was not so alone – at least professionally – as he first thought.
“I recall two statewide elections, when I had to go to Anchorage. Bob sat in for me. He covered the AP office during the days that I was out. He did a superb job. He had his journalism chops all along.”
Journalism chops indeed. About ten years earlier, DeArmond, along with businessman Robert Henning, co-founded the Alaska Sportsman, which is now published as Alaska Magazine. DeArmond would eventually sell out his share and work for Henning editing the Alaska Journal, a quarterly. DeArmond began an ended his career in journalism, starting first as a reporter for Strollers Weekly in Juneau not long after his graduation from high school in Tacoma, Washington, in 1930. He would eventually work for the Alaska Fishing News, which later became the Ketchikan Daily News, and the Juneau Empire. He covered the biennial sessions of the Alaska Territorial Legislature from 1946 to 1953. He would contribute to almost every publication in the state, particularly as his reputation for detailed historical research grew.
Thad Poulson says that DeArmond eventually came back to newspapering, writing hundreds of columns on local history for the Daily Sentinel beginning in 1985. Poulson says DeArmond knew the people and resources to plug the decades-long absence of a regular newspaper in Sitka. But he says despite sharply-honed skills compiling history, DeArmond, with only one-year of college under his belt, never admitted to the title.
“From time to time when he would be referred to as Sitka’s historian, or Alaska’s historian, he would make the very fine point (which most people disagree with) that, I’m not a historian at all. I simply write down history that’s been established. A historian is someone is someone who puts a viewpoint and draws conclusions on what he is writing about what happened in the past. I simply write down what happened.”
Much of that writing found its way into books – seventeen in all that he either wrote or edited – and many more that relied on his work, such John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country.”
Alaskan novelist and poet John Straley says, “He knew Alaskan history like no one else.”
Straley first sought out DeArmond when he learned that the out-of-work reporter had rowed a dory from Sitka back to Tacoma in 1931.
“He was a great resource to talk with in trying to write a story. You know, I can do research about fashions, I can look at old catalogues to see what men and women were wearing, but questions of culture and of time – like, I would ask him what would a woman wear going out in a boat in 1933, and we would discuss it. And also I’d ask him about cursing, and things like that which are very hard to track down, and he was very blunt and honest about it.”
DeArmond’s rowboat journey was pivotal for both authors. The publicity about the voyage in the Tacoma papers would lead to his reacquaintance with a friend from school, Dale Burlison. The couple eventually married, and would remain so for over seventy years. DeArmond would finally publish his account of the tale in the book “A Voyage in a Dory” in 1991. John Straley wrote six novels while the idea of DeArmond’s trip simmered in his mind. His seventh, “The Big Both Ways,” features an epic rowboat journey up the coast by an unlikely trio escaping labor unrest in the Pacific Northwest.
Straley dedicated the novel to DeArmond.
“When he did this, this was a young man who had a bullet in his leg. To get across Dixon entrance, he rowed twenty-seven hours straight. He gained forty-five pounds of muscle weight in the trip down there, and it was just matter-of-fact to him. Bob opened windows to the past that will remain open forever. As long as people are interested in the Alaska story they’ll be able to go to Bob DeArmond’s writing and look through those windows and see what the world is like.”
Straley says he gave DeArmond a copy of “The Big Both Ways” to read in manuscript, and he appeared to take pleasure in correcting some misspellings and other minor in the details in the novel. Straley says, “I just accepted that my book wouldn’t be as good as his.”
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