by Lyle Riley
In the spring of 1947, my father, Bill Riley, decided we were going to move from Seattle, Washington, to Douglas, Alaska. We always accused my dad of having gypsy blood. We’d been living in Seattle for seven years, by far the longest time he, my brother Herb, and I had lived in one place. He was constantly itching to be somewhere else. Well, Douglas, sounded to me like the farthest outpost of humanity, and I really didn’t want to go there. I’d become a city person, delighting in all the advantages of a big school (Highline), the ornate movie palaces, great restaurants, seemingly unlimited youth activities, and a lot of close friends. Leaving all that, I thought, was definitely not a good idea.
Dad, always the pioneer in the family, flew up to Alaska first, with my brother following a couple of months later, then my mom and I in July 1947. Our first two months in Douglas were spent at the home of my Aunt and Uncle, Catherine and Everet Bliss, who lived on the beach just north of Lawson Creek.
Our first friends were neighbors. Jim Ruotsala, who was thirteen years old that year, the same age as my brother Herb, quickly became our guide to our new surroundings. The fourth day after mom and I arrived, Jim took Herb and me to Juneau. We toured the museum in the Federal Building (now the State Capitol) and visited Governor Gruening in his office. We had a chat with him, and he gave us his autograph on a copy of the Territorial seal. This was twelve years before statehood, fifty-three years ago. We still treasure the friendship of Jim and his sister Carol.
Another neighbor lived a little north of us on the beach. Aaron Johnson, known locally as “Concreter,” was an elderly gentleman who lived in a tiny house with a lot of little dogs. Mr. Johnson had been an engineer and had played a major roll in constructing the fortifications on the Island of Corregidore in the Philippines during the years following 1900, when the Island became a U.S. military base. He was a good neighbor who charmed us with accounts of his interesting past, traded magazines with us, and described the local flora and fauna.
In September, when school started, we began to meet and get to know the people of Douglas. Herb was in eighth grade, and I was a junior in high school. That autumn, we moved into town and soon learned to appreciate and care for the people there. Fifty-three years later, I still consider Douglasites among the most important people in my life. Our seven years there were my best years. Occasional visits “home” help keep me in touch with this part of my life.
My dad, Bill Riley, worked at Cowling Motors in Juneau in 1947-48. After that, he was a lineman for Alaska Electric Light and Power. My mom, Tillie, worked at Foodland Grocery in Juneau as a checker from 1951-54. During my senior year in high school, I worked in the office of Alaska Coastal Airlines. When I graduated from Douglas High School in 1949, I worked for a year in the Education Dept. of Alaska Native Service (now BIA) in the Goldstein Building. I attended Washington State University, graduating in 1954, and worked each summer at the ANS offices.
When I finished college, my family moved south to Michigan. My brother Herb went there after four years in the Navy and I joined the family there when I finished two years in the Army Signal Corps. Herb met a girl there, Judy Harding, and they were married and have three children and five grandchildren. In the Army I had been stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and in 1959, I moved from Michigan to Phoenix. Mom, Herb and his family joined me a year later. I taught school in Phoenix for 29 years and retired in 1988.
Many memories of Douglas are with me a great deal of the time. The Eagles’ dances on Saturday nights, my schoolmates, hiking up Mt. Jumbo and down to Marmion Island, hunting and fishing with my dad and brother, a flight over to Sitka for Easter services at St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, and going away to college with my close pal Herb Bonnett, sailing south in August 1950 on the Princess Louise.