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Alaska's newest centenarian

Posted: April 25, 2012 - 12:00am

Celebrating milestones in America is something we all like to do; wedding anniversaries, historical events and of course birthdays. In Ketchikan, May 6, 2012 marks a major milestone for Ketchikan Indian Community member Henry Neligan. On that day he joins a select group of people—those that have turned 100 years old.

According to the 2010 Census there were just over 70,000 Americans who belong to this exclusive club and in Alaska there are only 40 residents who are 100 or more years old. Two reside in Ketchikan and after May 6th you can make that number three.

Henry was born in Craig, Alaska to Edna Coombs Neligan and Henry Neligan. He is Tlingit, Raven. Henry grew up in Klawock. He says during that time people lived on the shore and wooden sidewalks were always in use everyone walked—there were no cars. If someone wanted to travel they used a row boat which was always tied up on the beach in front of each person’s house. After elementary school in Klawock his father sent him to Briscoe Boarding School in Kent, Washington in 1919. He stayed with his brother until the age of 16 when he took a job for the next three years at a farm in Sumas, Washington near the Canadian border.

When the Great Depression arrived there was no more work and his father encouraged him to return to Craig and try fishing. Because of the depression he remembers people bartering work for food and a place to stay.

Henry worked as a carpenter and boat builder as well as a fisherman which he did for nearly 50 years. He built 52 small boats during his career. When he wasn’t building boats or commercial fishing he was playing music in his band. He played the trumpet and his band members included Paul Davis on trombone, Arthur Demmert who played saxophone and Bobby Armour who played guitar, bass drum and sang. Those were the days, he says, when people liked to dance.

One of Henry’s memorable adventures was a trip nearly around the world he took with his 2nd wife Susie. They took a ship from New York to Europe and visited Russia including Siberia and then returned via New York taking a train to Seattle and then back to Ketchikan by Alaska Airlines.

As you might imagine many historical events have taken place during Henry’s life. His most vivid memory however was man walking on the moon in 1969.

He says the secret to a long life is good genes. Henry’s father lived to be 104 residing in Klawock the entire time. Henry never drank or smoked and he likes simple foods. These days he enjoys making rice and any kind of fish are his favorite meals. Favorite dessert: Lemon Meringue Pie. Henry has six children and numerous grand and great grandchildren.

Henry’s birthday will be celebrated during the grand opening of the SSEATEC Café at 615 Stedman Street on May 12th. Birthday greetings are expected from the entire congressional delegation, Governor Sean Parnell and President Obama. The Southern Southeast Alaska Technical Education Center kitchen will provide daily meals delivered to Elders. In addition, the kitchen will act as a training facility for culinary arts classes expected to start later this year or early 2013.

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