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Unalaska's History Teacher Retires After 27 Years

Jun 2, 2017

Jeff Dickrell plans to spend his retirement traveling and writing about the history of the Aleutian Islands.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

When school lets out Thursday, Unalaska students will say goodbye to a handful of longtime teachers and administrators.

That includes Jeff Dickrell. He's retiring after 27 years as the high school social studies teacher.

TRANSCRIPT

Jeff Dickrell: They had never had a dedicated social studies teacher. It was always the shop teacher or the English teacher who taught social studies. So they decided very spur-of-the-moment and said, "Yeah, we’re going to hire you." That was the only job offered. I talked to a lot of people, and they all said, "Don’t go there. It’s a bad place."

KUCB: Is this when Unalaska was supposed to be a real raucous fishing town?

JD: This was the end of the 1980s, so the reputation of Dutch had become this horrifically bad place. And the reality, when I got out here, was just the opposite. It was a great place. The school was tiny -- mainly Native at the time. I would say we were probably 80 percent Native at the time. I think we’re 12 percent Native now, so that’s a very big switch. We just kept growing every year. I remember we had a big ice cream party when we hit 300 [students]. That was a big deal.

KUCB: You’ve really seen the school grow and change. What was town like when you first arrived?

JD: No internet. Nor real radio. No TV news or anything like that. We got 50 free newspapers a day from the Anchorage Times, which is a now-defunct paper. Except they didn’t send them every day. They would send them whenever the plane had room. At some point, we must have had NPR. Oh, wait! We had -- this will take people back -- KIAL. People who know that radio station can sing along, because they had this Native guy Jimmy sing "Happy Birthday" in Yup’ik every day. We all knew how to do that one.

KUCB: You’ve become an authority on the history of Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands. But that passion didn’t bring you here originally, right? It developed after you arrived?

JD: Yeah. I mean, I knew some stuff about World War II out at the end of the chain. Didn’t know anything about the fishing history. Didn’t know anything about sea otter hunting or Aleut culture or anything like that. And of course, there wasn’t any book that it was in. Ray Hudson had done some oral histories with the school, but you couldn’t just pick up a book and read the history of the Aleutians. Still can’t, by the way. That’s my retirement project.

KUCB: So you took to the subject over time with the help of Ray Hudson?

JD: Ray Hudson -- who had been here since the 1960s and did this amazing history stuff -- was the librarian. So I’d go and say, ‘Ray. Russian Orthodox Church stuff?’ The next day, there’d be a stack of papers on my desk, so he was real instrumental in getting the information to me. And the more I got into it, the more I got into it. I mean, it’s just such a cool story.

And the thing I love about Unalaska -- you read a book, then you’re talking to somebody, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my dad did that.’ Then you walk over to where that happened and you find a piece of pottery. You know, you find an old coffee mug, a piece of rusty metal, or an old railroad rail -- in the spot.

KUCB: We’re all still living it.

JD: We’re on top of it. It’s all over the place. I was just out walking the tundra this last weekend and found a pile of 18 Coke bottles from World War II.

KUCB: Now you’re leaving to travel, spend time with family, and write, how are you feeling about moving on? Is there anything you want to say to the community before you go?

JD: Well, let me just say this. I was at graduation, AB Rankin was sitting there, and I sat next to her. She’s recently retired. She asked, ‘Are you leaving?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I have to leave. I can’t afford to stay here.’ She looked at me. She said, ‘But this is your home.’ She hammered me there. She’s right. Half of my life. My whole adult life. My whole professional life. I’ve only taught in one school. Not many teachers can say that.

So I don’t know. I don’t know if I have wonderful words of wisdom. It’s an amazing place. There’s no place like this in the state or in the country. The one thing I would say to everybody who lives here is: Take advantage of living here. You have opportunities for everything.

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