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Pusich's name placed on Douglas Harbor

Posted: March 30, 2012 - 12:09am

Douglas pioneer Mike Pusich, who was heavily dedicated to community service and improving quality of life in Douglas during his lifetime, is slated to be honored by having Douglas Harbor renamed for him. Pending City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approval, it will be known as Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor.

The Docks and Harbors board unanimously approved the change on Thursday after hearing public testimony on the deeds of Pusich, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1909 and grew his family in the Douglas community.

His granddaughter Sharon Pusich led the testimony, listing key figures in the borough’s communities who have made an impact — Harris, Statter, Cope, Kennedy, Adair and Savikko.

“These were men who lived in our community and provided vision, service or protection, and were honored after their passing for their accomplishments,” she said. “... Mike has been gone nearly 60 years, but that does not lessen all that he did for the historical city of Douglas.”

Sharon Pusich never got to know her grandfather, who had raised seven children in Douglas and died in 1953.

“Growing up with the family restaurant, bar, gas station, grandmother, parents 12 aunts and uncles and 24 cousins all there, I felt like it was ‘Pusichville’ at times,” she said. “But back to Mike. Besides his businesses, Mike served the city of Douglas in non-paid positions for most of his life. Mike was an active and dedicated fireman for years.”

Pusich moved up the ranks in the fire department, serving as chief from 1936 to 1947. In 1945 he was elected to the Douglas Assembly and moved up to mayor in 1947, a post he held until his death. Sharon Pusich said he suffered a heart attack while returning to his homeland with his wife for the first time.

Sharon Pusich said her grandfather only took one other absence from his city duties, taking a two-week trip to Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and the U.S. Bureau of Mines to build its office (and laboratory) on Mayflower (Juneau) Island. She said Pusich also contributed by hosting a welcome home party for World War II veterans, getting federal assistance for Fifth Street development, housing projects and loaned the city $4,000 interest free. She also told of deeds like paying city workers to clear snow when it had run out of money, and having his band play for the Douglas High School prom when the original band hired didn’t show.

“In thanks for their service to their country, my aunt said it was a well-known fact that any Juneau or Douglas military returning home had a free appreciation meal on Mike,” Sharon Pusich said.

Douglas has had a tumultuous history with fire during the Taku winds and Pusich lost several businesses to the blazes.

Mark Whitman, circulation director with Juneau Public Libraries, researched quite a bit of history on Pusich and Douglas during his era. Whitman has been a Douglas resident for 11 years, and 33 years in Alaska. He said Alaskan history is his passion.

Whitman said part of what he wanted to accomplish in speaking was answering questions seen in the Empire’s comments section: since when are city harbor facilities graveyards? Fifty years from now why should we remember the name of a dead person?

Whitman said names are a historical handle for generations to keep ahold of. He said they remind us of past residents and perhaps make us wonder how they survived in times that were harder than ours.

Whitman showed an 1884 photo of the sawmill on Douglas, where the Douglas Harbor now sits. That sawmill is where Pusich started his first job in Alaska.

Whitman told of how families set out clothing in preparation for potential fires during the Taku winds in 1926. The roars of the fires came and as families fled, the Juneau, Treadwell and Douglas fire department members fought on. Daughter Grace Russo wrote a letter to the board, saying Pusich forged on with firefighting, jumping into action even though he suffered from gout in his feet.

“What I can speak to is loss of dreams that fires bring,” Whitman said. “Mike Pusich would have looked out every day at a six-sided dance pavilion that had just been built on Mayflower Island. The pavilion was the pride and joy of the community. ... It inspired him to quietly work on a dream that took him 28 years to build.”

That dream came through as the social beacon of the borough and was named Dreamland. It was a club that seated 200 and had room for an orchestra. Records tell the tale of a line of taxi-cabs trailing over the newly built Douglas Bridge to bring patrons in all their gala and glamor to Dreamland. The “premiere” nightclub was worked on by a decorator from the Rockefeller Center in New York City, Whitman said.

“Who would have thought, all of that in Douglas,” Whitman said. “It must have made the Taku winds jealous. In 1937 Dreamland went up in flames. Of 700 homes in Douglas, over 600 burned to the ground. That very same year Mike Pusich was able to open Mike’s Place, which persists as the Island Pub today. That kind of gumption serves Douglas well to this day.”

Russo wrote her father lost everything in that fire.

"I remember during the fire of '37 that he had our mother bundle us all up, walking out of town amongst the flying embers to meet an uncle on the other side to bring us all to the safety of Juneau," she wrote. "We were not sure if we would see dad or our home again. Dad stayed as he always would, to help save the town."

The devastation of fires in Douglas drove much of the population away, with about 500 residents sticking it out afterward, less than half the people the island held before the blazes.

Whitman said that’s when Pusich came up with the idea to help bolster the town with his lobbying initiative in Washington

Whitman said Alaska’s history is filled with people who came to Alaska, took what they wanted and left. But then there are people like Pusich who came, built homes and families and invested in their communities and became Alaskans.

Lou Pusich, son of Mike Pusich, said he has lived on the same street in Douglas for 75 years and would be honored to have the harbor named after his father.

Mark Pusich, grandson of the pioneer, said what Pusich did for the community spoke “volumes for what it means to be a public servant in our world.” He said the board would make a wonderful impact on the community by approving the change.

Port Director Carl Uchytil said the board would like to keep the geographic location in the name as is done in many other memorials for navigation purposes. He suggested Mike Pusich Marina at Douglas Harbor, so as to honor Pusich and keep the location. The board agreed, but went for a simpler title.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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