SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

By Dave Kiffer


January 23, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - In the last few years, we've all watched our Downtown turn into something different than we all remember. Part of that is just the one constant in all our lives: Change.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Nothing ever stays the same, no matter how comforting that sameness is. I have watched many familiar businesses close or move out of downtown and it saddens me, but unfortunately it is as inevitable as the weather.

Recently, I have also been to far too many funerals for my liking. Six people I have known have died since October. This is a change I could do also do without. Each loss leaves an empty space and Ketchikan is the poorer for it.

When I was in Ireland years ago, I was impressed by a poem by one of the great Irish writers John Montague in which he compared the "old people" around his youth to "dolmens" or Irish standing stones. The old people were immutable, always there.

Here the comparison would be totems, I guess. Things that are always there - like the Chief Johnson or Chief Kyan poles - whether you notice them or not.

In the last few months, Bill Moran and Annie Cessnun both died. Both could easily be called totems around my youth for a variety of reasons. They were both active in the community and they both gave of themselves to make Ketchikan a better place. They were indeed dolmens, or totems, as I was growing up.

Annie was always around doing stuff. One of those busy volunteer bees who frequently worked behind the scenes - sometimes deep in the archives - to get things done.

Mr. Moran - can't call him Bill, you'll see why in a moment - taught me a very important lesson about responsibility and respect. You see, I was dating one his daughters and I brought her home significantly after curfew. He decided we should discuss the matter at great length (actually he did most of the discussing, I did most of the listening, the only question that I was allowed to answer was "Do you have any idea, young man, what time it is?") in his living room.

I've never made that mistake again.

I have also been thinking about people who more recently contributed to the Downtown in a way that perhaps the new businesses - the inevitable change - have yet to understand. People who continued to make the Downtown a welcoming place, who made it livable year round.

Sandy DeCourcey probably could not be called a totem of my youth, though certainly she always towered over me. She was a "big girl" with an even bigger heart. She was a couple of years younger than me and we didn't know each other that well when we were growing up. But when I started working downtown in the early 1990s and her eldest daughter Krystal began taking music lessons from me, we got better acquainted.

The old Five and Dime is long gone from Downtown, but Sandy was the "craft lady" there for many years. It was impossible to drop in to buy anything without a 10-15 minute conversation with Sandy about something. We didn't talk crafts much ( I am not a crafty type) but just about everything else was fair game.

Visiting with Sandy a couple of times a week was a reminder of a time when a trip downtown was as much a social activity as it was a mercantile one. It was a time when one customer mattered more than 100 customers. Times have certainly changed.

The other "Downtown" person who recently passed on was Charlene Mossburg. Even if you didn't know Charlene you probably saw her. She was always huddled in the alcove next to the Daily News alley , taking a break from work and the elements. She was another person who I always stopped to talk to - both of us huddling somewhat unsuccessfully in the alcove.

Yes, I am sad that the reason she was always taking an outside break - smoking - is the reason she is no longer here. But I can't think of a time when stopping to talk to her didn't make me feel better. I will always remember one particularly inclement day when she stepped out into the rain and broke into an impromptu "sun dance" for my benefit

It was the perfect example of making lemonade out of lemons, of showing that the dreary, drippy dog days of winter can't beat the spirit of those who live here.

Now as I walk around Downtown on my daily errands, there are empty spaces where Sandy used to bustle in the Five and Dime and Charlene used to huddle next to the Daily News.

But in reality, they are "totems" that I will continue to "see" as long as I roam Downtown Ketchikan.

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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