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sometimes we say goodbye

Last May, Betsy Tower came to find me in my office one day. Many of you know of Betsy: she was recently inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. A physician, she moved to Anchorage in 1954 with her husband. She retired from medical work in the 1980s and threw herself into a very active life of research and writing on Alaska history topics, publishing a number of books on topics ranging from skiing in Alaska to a biography of Cap Lathrop (the man who had the the 4th Avenue Theatre built in Anchorage).

I didn’t know Betsy very well at that point. We’d met, and I knew of her, but we’d not really engaged in many conversations. I think the longest one I’d ever had with her, forgive me a slight digression here, but this is a great story, was when she’d gone to Steve Rollins (Dean of the Consortium Library) waving a printout of one of the images we’d put in the Alaska’s Digital Archives. It was a photo of a group around a golfer. And it had been labeled–on the original print, which we’d copied to the Digital Archives–something like: President Harding golfing on the Park Strip in 1925.  Well, as Betsy so rightly pointed out, President Harding had been dead for two years in 1925. So either the man in the photo wasn’t Harding or the date was wrong, and Betsy wanted us to correct it. Keep in mind that at that point, the Digital Archives contained over 3000 images and Betsy was carefully going through them. All of them. Looking at each of them. (A further digression: I then pulled out the original print, realized that not only was Betsy right, the caption was wrong on almost every level. A closer review revealed palm trees in the background. And buildings that have never existed in Anchorage architecture. So I deleted the image from the Digital Archives altogether.) What this taught me about Betsy? Was that she was a stickler for detail. And observant. And meticulous and passionate. And gentle with the people who had made the mistake.

My other main interaction with Betsy had been when I’d applied for some funding from the Tower Endowment for Canadian Studies. I’d asked for funding to digitize the atlases from the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal and to place them in the Alaska’s Digital Archives. The atlases were three volumes of maps, some replications of older maps of the areas that would become the Alaskan/Canadian border as well as the maps for the border as eventually drawn. I suspect that Betsy was initially a little dubious of the project since it was so different from other projects the Endowment had funded, but she and the committee were game and we did it, and in the end, I think she got a kick out of it. She’d always been such a huge fan of the Digital Archives and I think she liked knowing that she’d had a connect with materials going into it.

At any rate, that day in May, Betsy and I found some comfy chairs on the third floor of the library, by the windows, and she started talking. And told me she’d been diagnosed with cancer, and while she was undergoing some pretty aggressive treatment and was doing well, still playing golf every week!, she did want to take care of a few things. Just in case. Like making sure she’d given us her research papers.  So I made an appointment to go visit her at her house to see the papers, and did so a week or so later.

At her house, she took me up into a tiny room on the top level and showed me her boxes of research materials. We talked about the contents and the types of things represented in the papers and one of the things that she told me in that conversation was that she’d been pondering writing a book on the history of golf in Alaska (perhaps the reason she’d paid such close attention to that putative Harding photo!) She told me she’d shelved the plans for that while undergoing treatment, but that maybe she’d be able to get back to it someday.  So we talked a little bit about her papers, and made indefinite plans for me to come back and pick them up.

And that’s where it sat for a while. Until Betsy called in mid-September and asked me if I could pick up the papers soon. And so I came over to her house again to find the papers already boxed and sitting on the main level for me, ready to go. One of her daughters was there, helping out, and had hauled all of them down from that garret office for me. Betsy and I had another great conversation. She told me she’d had a few bad days and she was pretty much housebound now, but this was a good day. So we chatted about nothing very important for a while, I loaded up the car, and off I went.

For whatever reason, I had some extra time in the following few weeks and decided to get Betsy’s papers described and available.  So I did so, and was getting ready to write her a short thank you note and let her know that the finding aid was written and online, when my phone rang. It was Dr. Elizabeth James of the History Department here at UAA, a friend, and also chair of the Tower Endowment for Canadian Studies committee. She was calling to tell me that Betsy had passed away the previous day.

A shock, to be sure. As an archivist, especially one who works with donors, I’m often dealing with people who are going through major life changes. Moving out of long time homes, coping with parents or spouses with medical needs, dealing with job or office changes, those are frequently the times where I get called upon to help pack up the papers of individuals or organizations. But Betsy was the first donor–and friend, I’d like to think–that I’d lost in a 17-year career as an archivist.  Maybe it gets easier, but I hope not. I like having the kind of relationship with donors that allows me to grieve them when they’re gone. I hope I can continue to develop those kinds of relationships with the people who give us their papers.

At any rate, to help you understand what a great treasure Betsy was, I’d like to share something I learned about her from her spectacular obituary. It notes that “On patriotic occasions, she would recite the Gettysburg Address while standing on her head.”

Betsy? I’ll miss you. A lot of people miss you. Thank you for being a part of our lives.

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