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Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Poling, John & Lucy

by Don Poling

In 1944, John and Lucy Poling moved from Sitka, where John had worked in construction of the Naval Air Station, to Chenega, Alaska, as teachers for the BIA. Accompanying them to the Alutiq commercial fishing village on Prince William Sound were their sons Mitch, born in Ketchikan in 1941, and Don, born in Sitka in 1943. Their son Jack was born in Bethel in 1950.

In Chenega, they noticed students were coming to school hungry so they started a breakfast program, primarily serving oatmeal with dried fruit and sometimes scrambled eggs made from government powdered eggs. They also taught the students to cook simple meals from staples they had at home, such as dried beans, as it was apparent that in many homes there were no regular meals.

They encouraged the older students to go to high school at Mt. Edgecumbe. Some of their students became the village’s first high school graduates, later becoming officials in the Chugach Native Corporation. They formed close relationships with the children and parents. Mitch and Don were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1947, and stayed in contact with their godparents until they died. Chenega was destroyed by the 1964 tsunami, and 22 people were lost. Some of John’s photographs taken in Chenega, which he had given to the Alutiq Museum in Valdez, were used in the book Chugach Legends by John Johnson and published by Chugach Alaska Corporation in 1984.

In 1948, John and Lucy were transferred out of Chenega. John and Lucy attended the College of Puget Sound that summer, working on their bachelor’s degrees. Mitch and Don visited their grandparents in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. This was their first exposure to automobiles, trains, telephones, warm weather and white kids.

The BIA then sent them to Mt. Edgecumbe for the first six weeks of the school year, then to Metlakatla, a Tsimpsian community of about 1000 on Annette Island near Ketchikan. Lucy knew some of the people there because they were occasional customers at her grandfather’s store in Ketchikan, Heckmann Commercial Co., where he had worked since 1909. Metlakatla had been founded by Father Duncan before the turn of the century and by design was totally self-sufficient and dry. There was a sawmill and a cannery, and people built their own houses and boats. The school was a large one, somewhat like the Fifth Street school in Juneau.

The next assignment, July, 1949 to February, 1951, was to Quinhagak, a Yupik Eskimo village of about 200 located below the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, 84 miles south of Bethel. Unlike the Alutiq, the Yupik children did not speak English at home, and were taught the language in school. Conditions were much more primitive than in the southern coastal communities. The village was suffering from epidemics of tuberculosis and scabies. Lucy assisted the village midwife in birthing and noticed that the only soap used was Fels Naptha, also used to tan skins. Bathing was traditionally by sweat bath without soap. Lucy started a fad among the village women by bringing her own soap which was scented. Soon the whole village was using scented soap. John treated the scabies by making a salve from zinc oxide and sulfur powder.

Before school started, John divided the one large school room into two and installed separate oil stoves. He also built two flat ended boats for use on the shallow lake behind the school. Thirty years later, when Don lived in Bethel, the now grown up kids still had fond memories of navigating the Goosy Gander and the Puddle Duck on that lake. During Christmas break, John turned the coal room into an indoor toilet, building toilet seats and supplying them with honey buckets. The breakfast program was continued as had been done in Chenega. This was done on John’s initiative with permission of the BIA as food programs were not generally a part of the BIA school program.

One of the things John did while in Quinhagak was to assist the village chief in making a map delineating the boundaries of traditional hunting areas so that the village’s first official Native land claim could be registered with the Federal government. This map was later used by the village in their negotiations for land grants under the 1971 treaty which set up the Native corporations.

In the spring of 1950, there was a famine and the village ran out of food between the spring disappearance of the ice (which brought seals) and the expected appearance of the migratory waterfowl. John dispensed bags of government dried beans and powdered eggs which he traded for a promise of labor in repairing the school roof and sidewalks later in the year. He ordered lumber and shingles for this project and following the last of the salmon runs in September, 1950, the work was done. The BIA approved a lunch program for the following year at John’s request, providing funding for two Eskimo kitchen assistants. John ordered more dried foods, enough to cover the lunch program and provide a hedge against another famine should it occur.

In December, 1950, Lucy contracted typhoid fever, probably from bad water taken from the river too close to the village sewage disposal. She had to be flown to an outside hospital, and John requested transfer to a location where medical facilities existed in case of complications.

In February of 1951, the family moved to Juneau where John was made Director of the BIA for Southeast Alaska. This was a major promotion, but after two years at the job, John found office work to be a grind and asked a local principal if there might be teaching vacancies in the school system. In 1953, he took a major loss in salary to become a fifth grade teacher at Harborview School where he taught for three years. He became involved in the local teachers’ organization and in organizing a state branch of the NEA. In 1956, he was appointed Executive Secretary of the Alaska Education Association, a paid full-time position, which he kept for three years. These were the “statehood” years and much of the work included working closely with the Territorial Legislature and later the State government on matters involving the status of teachers and of the educational establishment within the new state.

However, John missed teaching which he loved more than cash or fame. Taking an opportunity for Lucy to get her degree and return to teaching also, John took a position as Superintendent and high school teacher in Nenana, south of Fairbanks, in 1959. Lucy finished her degree that summer and took a position teaching third grade in the same school.

In 1960, John and Lucy transferred to Fairbanks where John taught junior high school and Lucy taught elementary school on the military base. John, known by reputation as organizer of NEA Alaska, was elected president of the Fairbanks Teachers’ Association. He was so effective in this role that it frightened the local superintendent.

In 1962, John and Lucy transferred to Nome where they remained for 20 years until retirement. In Nome, first John and then Lucy was elected as president of the Nome Teachers’ Association. The condition of the physical facilities was so poor and the supplies of teaching materials so inadequate that the Nome teachers threatened to strike for the first time ever. With John’s help the teachers prepared their case so well that a strike was not necessary (the district was shown to be in violation of state standards) and all of the teachers’ requests were approved.

In 1982, John and Lucy both retired and moved to Haines where they lived for 14 years. Because of health concerns, they moved to Port Townsend, Washington, in November, 1996, to live with their son Mitchell and his wife Sandra, a medical doctor. John died on December 30, 1996, as a result of a heart condition, and Lucy died in her sleep in October, 1998, following a bout of heart congestion. John and Lucy’s sons lived with them in Juneau from January, 1951 until July, 1959. Mitch was in the JDHS class of 1960, and Don in the JDHS class of 1962. Jack graduated from Nome High School in 1968.