SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

Papa Joe


July 07, 2020
Tuesday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
Most people define "family" in one of two different ways.

For some, it is blood kin, the relatives that the Creator chose for us. The people, according to Robert Frost, that have to take you in when you show up on their doorstep.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

For others, it is the people we gather around us as life progresses, whether they are "related" or not. The people who leave your life only through the most painful of amputations. The "family" we choose and choose us.

Sometimes, the concept of family does not easily fit into either category. I was thinking about that recently when I heard that Joe Kelsey had passed away.

Joe was the long-time history professor at Ketchikan Community   College. He was an ex-Marine, a veteran of bloody battles in Korea and Vietnam. But he also was a father, even though, as far as I know, he never had kids of his own.

I first came in contact with Joe after my freshman year in high school. My father had just died and one of my friends suggested we go to something called "Sea Kings" and check it out.

What it was was something like a Boys and Girls Club, a place where teens could go to hang out in the hours after school or on weekends. A place to find that thing that it is sometimes hard for teenagers to find, a community with no outsized expectations.  A place to just be.

Even those of us with parents sometimes had trouble relating to them in those days. We were trying to grow into our eventual independence and they were just trying to do what they felt was right for us. Yes, we loved our parents, but the process was not very pretty. I did not grow up in a world in which kids "hashed things out" with the their parents like they do now. It was their way or the highway. That's why Joe Kelsey was a "parent" but different. Because he wasn't our blood parent, he didn't feel the need to always be "right." His only role was to be "there" for whatever we needed. And he was supremely good at it.

What "Sea Kings" was in its most basic form was something today's teens call a "hang."  On any given afternoon, you would find 10-15 other teens hanging out in Joe's two-bedroom condo in the Marine View. They would be talking, listening to music, playing games, or just hanging out. 

Joe was more than willing to share his space with us like that. Didn't matter who you were or what your background was you could "hang" as long as you were respectful to Joe and others. Sometimes that was a challenge because teenage boys can sometimes get rambunctious and there ain't much room for rambunctious in such a small space.

Of course, these days, no adult single man would be caught dead letting teenagers into his space like that. The only restriction I remember was that females could not be in the condo without boys around. I lived nearby, so occasionally I would be called on to come over and hang out because a group of girls wanted to be there, Not that I needed a reason. I soon became one of the regular folks there. I could hang with the wrestlers who would come by, I could hang with the Dungeons and Dragons "geeks" and I could certainly hang with the musical kids.

At one point, I held the Sea Kings attendance record of more than 115 consecutive days attendance. I was the Lou Gehrig of the group. Known - and celebrated -  for "just showing up." That has remained one of my crucial life skills. 

Joe was always celebrating things like that. He kept tally sheets on the walls that showed different contests and who was leading. Most pushups (popular with the wrestlers), longest breath holding (popular with the musicians). most consecutive wins in whatever board game was the flavor of the month.

One of the most cherished and most competed for records was who could fit the most "Nilla Wafers" in their mouth at one time. Surprisingly enough, my mouth was too small to be competitive in that event, but it seemed like every afternoon someone took a shot at the record. I remember Joe having dozens of  boxes of Nilla's on hand at all times. The record was somewhere in the mid 20s, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that any given day, some kid could pop a big handful of wafers in his or her mouth and be celebrated for it. Sure, it's not winning the Nobel Prize or the NBA Championship, but some days all a teenager needs is a bit of encouragement, to be celebrated for something, no matter how small, to keep going on in their confusing world.

Joe may have been a history teacher but he really was a psychologist in dealing with those dozens of egos and needs. At one point, during my years there, there were just under 100 kids spending time regularly at Joe's. Not all at once, of course, but at least stopping by a couple of times a month. We had T-shirts made up and light blue jackets. People would ask us what "Sea Kings" was and we would invite them over. Anyone who respected Joe, respected each other,  and respected the space was welcome. The key word was respect. Joe certainly led by example but he also expected each of us to take a role in teaching others to respect. Joe didn't have to "police" Sea Kings. We learned to police ourselves starting with ourself, another valuable life skill.

"Sea Kings" started out focused around the Kayhi wrestling team, because sports was Joe's big interest - that and military history. But like any great parent he adapted to where his kids were rather than where he wanted them to be. With me and my friends, he took a greater interest in music, "studied up" on it enough to hold his own in our conversations. That was another thing, for an ex drill sergeant, he didn't  spend much time leading us. He was content to sit back and watch us interact. Sometimes he would direct our activities or converations but only infrequently, usually when our teenage conversations would veer off into the inappropriate, as they sometimes did.

He was also a writer and that was where he and I bonded the most.  The entire time I knew him he was working on a long novel he called, "What Price Fame."  I learned to write by constantly working on that manuscript. Writing, editing, sometimes revising whole chapters when either Joe or I would have a new idea that would take the story a different direction. The endless pages are still in one of Joe's numerous file cabinets, I'm sure.  Looking back on it, I see now that he wasn't looking to create a book, he was looking to share the experience of creating  something with people he cared about. What he loved most about the book was sitting around reading the chapters All out loud to anyone who wanted to listen.

He celebrated our high school events, whether it was regional sporting tournaments or music festivals. He celebrated when we made the honor rolls and he really celebrated when we graduated.  He commiserated with us when things did not go so well. He listened intently as our lives peaked and ebbed. Unlike most adults, he wasn't interested in offering too much advice to fix the problem or to get us to stop talking about it. He was an sympathetic ear, when what we really most needed was someone to just "listen."

Above all, he documented everything with photographs.

Long before "promapalooza" and all its rituals became a thing, a major local ritual was to stop by Joe's place on our way to prom and get our pictures taken. At one point all the bookshelves of his apartment were filled with a decade worth of prom pictures. All those bad tuxes and frilly dresses. It was kinda spooky to have all those uncomfortably smiling faces staring back at you!

Photography was one of his things and he left behind dozens of photo albums, seemingly documenting every day of our lives between the ages of 14 and 18 and sometimes older. Those albums have been donated to the Tongass Historical Museum and they represent a remarkable record of what it was to be a teenager in Ketchikan between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. All the smiles, all the acne, all the bad clothes and regrettable hair style choices.

For many of the Sea Kings, hanging at "Joes" was a high school thing and they moved on with their lives after graduation. Others came back frequently until their own families grew and took precedence. There were a handful of people who stayed in Joe's life after Sea Kings ran its course and were with him nearly to the end.

I was somewhere between the last two groups. I had lunch with him a few times a year, I would stop and chat if I saw him walking on the street (something he did every day until his health finally said no). But I wasn't there much for him the last years. And that is something I truly regret. He was there for me at a time in my life when I really, really needed a father figure, a positive role model to care enough to tell me when I needed to get my act together. He was kind, he was compassionate, he was caring and he was always there when any Sea King, or any other youth for that matter, needed him. He was there for me times than I could possibly remember or possibly pay back.

He was "there" for dozens of Ketchikan youth back in the day. 

We kids of Ketchikan were always Papa's Joe's family and he will always be part of ours.




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

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