Retired businessman and active musician Ron Maas celebrated the double occasion of his 87th birthday and Alaska Day this week by giving Juneau a present: $100,000.
Maas’ donation, announced during a private birthday celebration Saturday, will be shared equally among four local organizations: Juneau Jazz & Classics, Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM), the Juneau Symphony and the Glory Hole.
Maas, a trumpeter and leader of the Thunder Mountain Big Band, said his decision to donate to the Glory Hole in addition to the three music organizations stems from childhood memories that remain vivid in his mind.
“We didn’t have much to eat, ever. It was pretty grim,” he recalled during an interview last week. “I remember that very well. When you go hungry for a week, it makes you think, you know. Those were tough days, tough days. … I learned that we have to help each other. And I’m in the position to be able to do that. That’s what I like to do.”
Juneau Jazz & Classics Artistic Director Linda Rosenthal, who accepted Maas’ $25,000 check on behalf of her organization at Saturday’s event, said Maas’ contributions to the community have taken many forms: an arts patron, a gifted trumpet player and a band leader who has kept Thunder Mountain Big Band alive for the past 20 years.
“Over the years, in so many different ways, he’s supported Jazz and Classics, but beyond that he’s such an inspiration, a shining example of what community spirit and community living is all about,” Rosenthal said. “He’s made life better for all of us in Juneau.”
Lorrie Heagy, who heads JAMM, said her group was “deeply grateful” for the gift, which will help JAMM provide instrumental music to more children during and after school. The program serves close to 500 students at Glacier Valley, Riverbend and Auke Bay elementary schools.
Maas and his wife, Kathy, have been integral members of Juneau’s arts scene for decades. Maas was one of the founding members of the Juneau Symphony with Dick Garrison in 1962 (two years after Maas got to town). He also started played with Mel Flood’s Big Band in the 1980s and now leads the band himself as the Thunder Mountain Big Band.
Kathy Maas is a longtime symphony violinist who joined the orchestra upon her 1971 arrival in Juneau. Ron and Kathy Mass, who have been married 40 years, met at a symphony rehearsal in a moment Maas calls “the highlight of my career.”
This isn’t the first time the Maases have given major donations to local groups. In 2004 the couple gave $50,000 to the symphony and in 2010 established the Maas Big Band Scholarship to allow four music students to attend the Sitka Fine Arts Camp every summer, indefinitely. In 2008, the Maases were honored for their contributions and participation in the arts community with a Mayor’s Award for Patrons of the Arts.
Raised in Watertown, Wisconsin, Maas started playing the trumpet at age 13. As a teenager, he left home to play with a territory band that toured western states by bus in the 1940s and early 1950s. He settled in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a time and organized a successful band. They started making money and Maas was in the midst of building a house when a personal loss caused him to rethink his plans.
“My dad and I always had a dream to come to Alaska. And he died all of the sudden — it was kind of grim circumstances — so I got to thinking, ‘Geez, if I’m going to die like that I’m going to at least see Alaska,’” he chuckled. “I was building a house and we had some money put aside for a carpet. And I said, ‘By God, forget the carpet, I’m going to Alaska! I came up here and fell in love with Juneau. I just really fell for it. I went to Anchorage and Fairbanks also, to look it over, but it was nothing like this. And so I went back home and sold everything I had and came up, and here I am 54 years later.”
That was in March 1960. Soon, Maas had established a successful real estate business, Maas Realty. Some years later he opened his own chartering business, shuttling people around Southeast with a 54-foot steel boat called the Alaskan.
In 1972 he and his wife bought the Taku Lodge.
”It was in really in bad shape, it was falling apart,” he said. “My wife and I went up there and wintered with our kids and spent seven years fixing it up.”
In 1979 they opened Taku Lodge as a salmon bake and tourist lodge, a role the building had played when it was owned by Mary Joyce in the 1930s and 1940s. The Maases and their two children, Debbie and Michael, spent every summer at the lodge and returned to Juneau during the school year. To provide access to the remote lodge, Maas, a pilot, started an airline service in the late 1980s.
“It was a really a good move,” he said. “And so much fun. My God, I’ve had so much fun in my life. But I do miss flying. I really miss that.”
After the Maases sold the lodge and airline in 1993 to Ken Ward and his wife, Michelle, Maas was able to devote more time to his music. The Thunder Mountain Big Band rehearses once a week in Little Blue, the music studio Maas built for that purpose in the Federal Building parking lot. The band consists of 16 members and the Ain’t Misbehavin’ Trio — Pat Belec, Scarlett Adam and Rebecca Albert — who serenaded Maas at his birthday party Saturday. Together, the group plays at local events including the annual New Year’s Eve Gala, Swing in the New Year, hosted by Juneau Jazz & Classics.
Despite the loss of an eye to diabetes, Maas is still an active trumpet player in the band he leads.
“I still play fairly well but I’m losing my eyesight, so I’m having a lot of trouble,” he said. “I have to blow my music up (to a larger size). Otherwise, I feel pretty good and still do a lot of stuff.”
Speaking of his reverse birthday present, Maas said he feels lucky to be able to give back to a place that has given him and his family so much joy over the years.
“I’ve done alright — and had a blast, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s been really fun. And Juneau, of course, is the reason. It’s such a wonderful little town.”