Anyone who spends much time in Sitka knows that it is not really like other small towns. It’s small, but diverse; the community is remarkably united on some things, but divided on others. Residents and visitors alike consider it a kind of paradise, but it’s also got many of the same social problems that plague just about every place else.
In early 2010, author and scholar Gary Holthaus attempted to indentify Sitka’s distinctiveness by interviewing people – over 90 in all. His work was sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum, and was subsequently published in a paper called “Up for Discussion: What makes a Sustainable Community?”
Holthaus’s paper caught the attention of Diana Saverin, a Kingsley Trust Fellow at Yale University. Saverin visited Sitka this summer to meet some of the people in the study, and to hear their stories firsthand.
In part one of a five-part series of Sitka profiles, Saverin goes backstage into the life of musician and teacher Hank Moore.
Sound: Guitar music.
That’s Hank on the guitar. Around Sitka Fine Arts Camp, he’s a rock star, a legend.
“When I walk into one of these classrooms with sixteen kids, they start smiling before I open my mouth. Half of them know me before I get to know them. Hey! Who are you?”
His local stardom goes beyond middle schoolers—everywhere he walks, people stop him to talk, catch up, check in. It would seem like he’s been here forever, but he hasn’t. In fact, it took him a lot of moving to find Sitka.
“When I was in the fourth grade – that’s right when they integrated schools in North Carolina, I had this teacher named Mrs. Butler. She would start the class by saying, This week we’re going to go to Argentina. And we would read about Argentina. One day I went to school, and she said, This week we’re going to go to Alaska, and it snows all the time. And I said, One day I would really like to go to Alaska – I don’t know when, but I would really like to go where it snows all the time, because I was crazy about snow when I was little. That’s how I made the choice to come to Alaska.”
Diana – “How old were you when you first came to Alaska?”
“I was forty-two.”
Diana – “Did you think about Alaska a lot in between?”
“I thought about Alaska a lot. I drove tractor trailers for a living, and I always had moments when I would hope – when I drove for Tri-State Motor Transit – that I would get a load to Fairbanks or Anchorage.”
While dreaming about Alaska between the ages of 9 and 42, he lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis, Chicago. He was in the Navy, an engineering major, a truck driver. He never really stayed in one place. But none of these places or jobs brought Hank what he needed in the way Sitka did—at the time he needed it most.
“There were many times I wanted to come to Alaska, but after my wife died, I don’t know, I just wanted to get away from down there, so I felt like it was time to come here. It brought me home. Home and community—things that are important for me. I think this town is what home should be like.”
Hank experienced a personal crisis after the loss of his wife thirteen years ago. It was a painful period in his life: In many ways, he hit bottom. Sitka, he told me, gave him a chance. When he finally made his way to Alaska, his four kids didn’t follow. And to this day, won’t.
Diana – “Do you talk to your kids a lot?”
“I don’t talk to my kids as much as I would like. Well, to be honest, they won’t talk to me.”
Diana – “Why not?”
“Because I’m not a Christian. First, they tried to save me. They spent a lot of energy doing that. When that didn’t work, they just felt like they couldn’t talk to me. ‘Cause I’m evil. I have horns growing out and might do something to hurt them.”
This lack of contact with his family continues to leave a void, he said. But in Sitka, he finds something every day that helps fill it. One of his many jobs—including taxi driving, working on a gravel truck, and fishing—contributes: teaching guitar to kids.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of other families when I first got here also, and that. I always felt like by connecting with other people’s children, I was connecting with my own.”
Sound: Hank teaching a guitar lesson.
“I think you could say it fills the void, it means a lot to me when parents trust me with their kids the way they do around here. I think that’s what kept me here, too. It actually gives me purpose. One time my daughter called me, and I was teaching this kid a guitar lesson. He was nine years old. And I said, I can’t talk right now because I’m doing a guitar lesson. I said, here’s Ben Gordon, he’s nine years old. I gave him the phone and he talked to my daughter. When he gave the phone back – what I heard in her voice no money, no nothing, could take the place of. She was so proud of me teaching this nine year-old kid a guitar lesson. She said, Dad, I didn’t know you could do stuff like that.”
While nothing can completely fill such a void, the chance Sitka gave him has changed him, and continues to do so.
“I wanted to reinvent myself, and that’s what I did. Before, I was the Lone Ranger, I wanted to be on everybody’s good side, to make everything right. I wanted to be noticed. The person I am now, I’m like a sunflower out in the middle of a field, catching the rain. Even when it do rain, my yellow flowers make it look like it’s light outside. If someone sees the flower, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s still okay. But that’s who I am now.