Ceremony marks transfer of Sheldon Jackson campus

Sheldon Jackson College was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, so it’s no surprise that Saturday’s transfer ceremony began and ended with a prayer.

In fact, faith seemed to be a theme on Saturday, from the kind that’s placed in a higher being, to the kind that’s placed in each other.

“The board of directors of Sitka Fine Arts Camp/Alaska Arts Southeast would like to thank the trustees of Sheldon Jackson for having faith,” said Karen Grussendorf, president of the board for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which now owns the former college’s core campus. “Faith in the ability of our organization and our hundreds of volunteers to bring this campus back to life. We are excited, we are thankful, and we are humbled by the job we have been given.”

The Fine Arts Camp will be taking the trustees’ faith and placing some of it in the community, depending on volunteers to help fix up the 19 buildings it now controls.

Roger Schmidt, executive director of the camp, told the crowd gathered inside the gym at Hames Center, that his organization knew it could handle the massive undertaking, not because the group itself is so powerful, but because of the community around it.

“We trusted our community and we trusted our friends that if we had the courage to step forward and try to be part of a solution to revitalize (the campus) in our community that our community would step forward and join us,” Schmidt said. “I really think that’s what this is about. It’s about getting the ball rolling, it’s about taking some boards off some windows and taking what the trustees as given back to us as an opportunity – an opportunity to continue a legacy of creating vibrant educational opportunities for all of us in our state.”

While Schmidt and the camp look to the future, alumni and those affiliated with the school looked to the past a little on Saturday.

Among the many students to attend classes here was a little girl named Harriett Fawcett, from Hoonah.

“She came to Sheldon Jackson when she was 12 years old, to the training school, and they literally raised her,” said her daughter, Pat Alexander.

Alexander says this is where her mother learned to live independently. It’s where she worked summers for her tuition. And it was a special place for her mother, through the end of her life. Alexander says she feels good about the campus’s future.

“This is the end of something and the beginning of something else. I think the new group has decided they want to preserve the legacy of Sheldon Jackson, and I think that part is so important to every person who has a loved one who attended here.”

Shirley Holloway is president of the Sheldon Jackson board. She says it’s been a bumpy road since the school’s closure, and that she understands why.

“Today is probably the most positive experience the trustees have had in a long, long time,” she said. “People felt a very personal connection to the college and the history of the college, and so there’s been anger, frustration, fear, doubts that we would preserve the things that need to be preserved. There’s been rumors that today we’re done as a board, but we’re not. We have much work yet to do.”

Part of that work is figuring out how to preserve the school’s history, including its tangible history. At issue is the preservation of the college and school archives, and historic photographic prints and plate-glass negatives, along with scores of materials still located on the campus.
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