Col (ret) Suellyn Novak has always been known for her tenacity. It will be a trait that is sorely missed as she steps down, for a good reason, from her position on December 31 as the president and executive director of the Alaska Veterans Museum (AVM).
Under her leadership, AVM won numerous awards like the Seymour Award (2014) for best community organization and the Dena’ina Award (2015) for the best non-profit team organization in Anchorage. AVM has also been featured in five magazine articles and contributed to the recent “Deadliest Catch: A Hillstrand 4th of July” holiday special on the Discovery Channel.
Novak argues that “the military built this state,” pointing out that many bridges, roads, and communication systems were built by the military.
She worked tirelessly to bring new displays to highlight the history of the state and to collect oral stories from Alaskan veterans with single-minded determination.
This single-mindedness has been apparent since a day in 3rd grade in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Her teacher asked the class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. Without hesitating, Novak drew a sketch, explaining with striking clarity that she wanted to become a “full colonel squadron commander in the Air Force, serving in Alaska.”
She maintained that vision as she grew older, even though her mother did not want her to join the Air Force. Her father embraced her vision, saying, “Let Scooter live her dream.”
When “Scooter” arrived at Grove City College to be the first woman to commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) there, she encountered resistance. One of Novak’s professors went so far as to say, “You don’t belong in my Air Force” because she was a woman.
“There was a lot of bias and prejudice [against women commissioning into the Air Force]. Women who joined the military were looked at in a not-so-positive light and a lot of the men when I first joined in 1971 sure didn’t want to be commanded by a woman…that glass ceiling was most assuredly in place and alive and well!” she added while laughing in retrospect.
With perseverance, and with no small amount of persistence, she defied the odds and commissioned with the Air Force May 19, 1973, after graduation. She remembers every detail about that day.
Throughout her career, she fought those who blocked her from advancing because of her gender and earned the rank of Colonel.
However, she still had not achieved the other half of the dream she conveyed in her 3rd grade drawing; she was not serving in Alaska. She had been intrigued as a child about the north from reading Jack London and from hearing about Alaska from big game hunter Wally Taber.
“I’d been petitioning the Air Force for years to be stationed in Alaska and it never worked out. For twenty years I kept putting ‘Alaska, Alaska, Alaska’ but never got it. And then, after my late husband died, I think they must have felt sorry for me because they finally granted me that wish.”
Arriving in Alaska in 1993 was a memorable experience. It was Iditarod Saturday and when she saw Alaska for the first time, she couldn’t help but gawk at the beauty of the place. While driving away from the airport, a friend told her, “I’ve seen her [Alaska] grab people fast and I’ve seen her grab people hard but never that fast or that hard!”
In 2003, after a distinguished career, in which she served in South Korea and Turkey and as a Medical Squadron Commander at two Air Force bases, she retired. “The most emotional day of my life was two-fold,” she explained. “One was making Colonel because that was the fulfillment of the dream and the other was my heart breaking when I retired.”
She drove an RV around the country for a year after retirement, enjoying the freedom and the change of view. But, she needed a goal, something to pursue and something to overcome.
She became involved with the Alaska Veterans Museum after receiving a flier and attending an event. She initially rejected the offer to take responsibility of recruitment and public relations. But she found herself taking on that role in a few years as she worked with AVM’s team to develop the museum.
Novak recently made the difficult decision to resign from her role with the AVM. The reason came about during a fishing trip with her fishing partner of 11 years. They met while singing in their home church choir.
There seemed few surprises left in their relationship, until he proposed to her in his boat on the waters of the lake.
She says, “I was so shocked, I was a fish out of water! I’m just sitting there and nothing is coming out and he says, ‘Breath!’”
Laughing, she continued, “He’s the right guy. I never thought I would find a second soulmate in my life. I’ve been a widow for twenty-five years and my second shot came along and I’m not going to turn it down!”
After marrying on September 24, the newlyweds intend to live 8 months of the year in Pennsylvania and spend the summers in Alaska.
What new adventures lie ahead for Novak? Some rest for starters. After 46.5 years of working, she says it is time to relax. Then, she wants to explore her genealogy, continue her stamp collection she has been working on since 1962, update her scrapbooks, work on her railroad models, and fish in as many states as possible.
Wherever she goes, Novak can rest assured knowing that she achieved the clear dream she scribbled on a piece of paper in 3rd grade. She continues adding to the drawing every day with each new undertaking and challenge.
Jamin Goecker is visiting family and making friends in Alaska before commissioning with the military. He holds a graduate degree in International Affairs from Texas A&M University. When not hiking, fishing or working out, he is editing his manuscript for a novel. To reach Jamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org.