It is the story of how doing a friendly deed for a neighbor led to the preservation of other stories – stories detailing the history of Alaska’s veterans.
Kaleigh Wotring had been involved with the Anchorage Veteran’s Museum based in Anchorage for a time that she describes as long enough when her role in helping to save the thoughts; the words of the state’s military veterans came to be.
Her neighbor back home in Eagle River just happened to be the museum’s executive director. When her neighbor asked her for help with transferring a VHS tape onto to a CD she happily agreed. This was how she came to watch her first oral history.
She was hooked.
“I just wanted to know more about that person’s life,” Wotring said, as explained how she came up with the idea of the museum’s most recent project called, “Telling Our Story.”
The project’s main goal is to record the rich and engaging oral histories of our veterans, making sure the importance their history isn’t forgotten and can be passed down to the younger generations ensuring that their values will live on.
“It was heartbreaking to me that these stories weren’t getting shared,” Wotring expressed as her main drive for pursuing this endeavor.
In order to start getting the stories shared, they reached out to South Anchorage High School.
“Everyone has a unique and interesting story to tell,” Trevor Bailly said as he discusses how he came in contact with the stories through his U.S. History class and its teacher, Mr. Houston.
“Even as I go home, there’s nothing I enjoy more than hearing their stories,” Jordan Vela said. He is a current active duty military member volunteering with the project. His favorite part of hearing these stories is being able to relate to their struggles and ultimately gaining a spiritual strengthening.
One of the veterans, Z.W. Ski Kowalewski, a U.S. Navy pilot, was so inspired by this project that he wrote a book about his experiences titled, “A Sailor’s Life In World War II.” Cost for the book is $10, but the money does not line Kowalewski’s pocket. It goes to the Good Samaritan Fund at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center where Kowalewski is a resident and lifetime member.
Suellyn Novak got involved with the organization in 2004 and has been involved ever since as the executive director.
“Here are your heroes,” Novak said with a humble pride when she talks about the individuals that have shared their stories. Her passion for Alaska’s military veterans is what makes her heart beat. She often asks the rhetorical question about her own motivation for serving her country and the motivation of the veterans whose life stories she promotes nonstop. “What did I do? I served my country. I got to do what I always wanted to do.”
Aiding in the organization’s physical opening in 2011 she has seen just shy of 20,000 people in her quest to support and grow the museum and its mission.
Hers is a volunteer position that puts in roughly 10 hours a month. She is retiring in December of this year and look for a replacement, although anyone in the know regarding her work readily admit there is no one that could fill her shoes.
With all the help this project has received and with continued involvement from the community, this project is one that can live on in the minds of those whose stories are told and the hearts of those who hear them.
For Wotring, the smile worn on her face last Sat., May 20, as more than 200 veteran’s stories were celebrated and honored was reward enough for the countless hours invested in the project.
“Just getting these DVDs watched is a huge step for us, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Wotring said. “Someday I hope all of these stories will be known and come to be loved the way I have come to love them.”
Editor’s Note: Kali Spencer is the newest member of the ECHO News team in the role of a student intern. She is a sophomore at Eagle River High School where she is the student body vice president and active in the arts. She is the daughter of Andy and Valerie Baalerud, both teachers at ERHS. Welcome aboard Kali!