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A life preserved in letters, love

Family and friends remember Pelican's first librarian, Betty Clauson

Posted: September 16, 2013 - 7:41pm  |  Updated: September 17, 2013 - 12:02am
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A young Carl Brodersen and his grandma, Betty Clauson, work on letters together circa 1988. Clauson loved teaching children, and had a knack for it, Brodersen said.  COURTESY OF CARL BRODERSEN
COURTESY OF CARL BRODERSEN
A young Carl Brodersen and his grandma, Betty Clauson, work on letters together circa 1988. Clauson loved teaching children, and had a knack for it, Brodersen said.

Carl Brodersen has many vivid memories of his grandma, Betty Clauson. After all, they were almost all each other had in the way of family before Clauson passed away Aug. 27 at the age of 93.

But, going through boxes upon boxes of his grandmother’s correspondence after her death has painted a new picture for 29-year-old Brodersen, he said. One that shows a life outside of the Pelican library and school, where she touched so many lives for 30 years. One that preceded her time in Alaska, even, where she moved as a newlywed in 1945.

“She even had a life before Grandpa,” Brodersen said. “It’s such an interesting view we get on people. I think about my future grandchildren reading through my Gmail account. There’s plenty of information, sure, but it’s not the same as stumbling across a letter.”

Clauson was born in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1920. She went to college to become a teacher in eastern Washington. Brodersen said he found letters dating back to the early 40s between his grandma and a college boyfriend.

“The guy didn’t stand a chance,” Brodersen said. “He was really unfortunately dull,” a poor match for Brodersen’s smart-as-a-whip grandma.

Later came correspondence between Clauson and a young soldier she had gone on one date with before he was shipped off to fight in World War II. Their letters were spent planning a second date that never happened; the soldier’s leave was cancelled when he was relocated, Brodersen said.

The first letters between the two, in 1942, were signed, “Just a friend.” But, by the end, “he worked up the nerve to sign his letters ‘love,’” Brodersen said.

Around 1944, Clauson met the man she would fall in love with, marry and promptly follow to his “postage stamp-sized house” in Pelican, the beginning of her story in Alaska: John Clauson. Brodersen said his grandma had saved every letter John ever sent her. The two were married for about 66 years, until John’s death several years ago.

“That’s an enormous stack of letters,” Brodersen said.

It was interesting to see the softer, romantic side of his grandpa, a man Brodersen had always known to be unflappably stoic.

“She definitely brought out the best in him,” he said. “She and my grandfather had a very charming relationship, even well into old age.”

Deb Spencer, who lives in Pelican and was good friends with Clauson, said Betty and John were as complementary as bread and butter.

“He really was a bear of a man,” Spencer said. “But she was always able to stand up to him, always in a gentle way.”

When Clauson moved to Alaska in 1945, she had never been to the state before, Brodersen said. As a fisherman’s wife, she had to quickly get used to her new surroundings, but did so with a courage and grace that stuck with most people she met, he said.

“To follow somebody up, no matter how much you love them, into a completely unknown space is impressive,” Brodersen said. “When they came up, she really had never been around water before.”

Brodersen said the isolation of Pelican, population now just shy of 150, seems to have never bothered her, even as a mother of two, one of which was Brodersen’s mother, Christine.

“The ability to entertain two young children consistently in such an isolated place is amazing,” he said. “Going through their home now, cleaning things up and sorting and organizing, the projects she came up with for them, it’s all there.”

Of course, Clauson is most fondly remembered as Pelican’s first librarian, having started the collection with only one shelf and a few books in 1949. By the time she retired in 1995 at the age of 75, Pelican had a full-fledged library.

Gail Corbin met Betty and John in Pelican in 1962, and said she was “adopted into an informal family” by the couple. Three days a week, Corbin would eat lunch at the Clauson home.

“She was a wonderful and generous person,” Corbin said.

Originally, the Pelican City Library “was in an old fish scow that doubled as the community hall,” Corbin said. “I helped Betty move the library at least three times. Betty kept adding steadily to the inventory of books. Being a fisherman’s wife, she knew the value of how-to books. Living in a remote location, and before the Internet, such books were well-used.”

Corbin said Clauson’s Saturday morning story time at the library was an institution in the small town.

“This time was very popular,” Corbin said. “After Betty read the story they (the children) could play with puzzles, building toys, drawing and art projects. She was especially concerned for the children and did whatever she could to educate and add fun to their lives.”

In addition to being Pelican’s librarian, she also taught in its school. Brodersen said his grandma had saved hundreds of handmade valentines from years of students. She had an innate knack for communicating with children, he said, right down to the special way she read books aloud.

“She almost acts them out; it’s almost like a script for a show,” Brodersen said. “It was more than just regurgitating symbols on the paper, it made the kids feel the tension in the air.”

Brodersen said reading was something his grandmother enjoyed until her death at the Sitka Pioneers’ Home. Clauson moved from Pelican in 2010 when her health began to fail, Brodersen said. On visits to his grandma at the home, Brodersen would read aloud a book about Pelican written by Clauson’s friend Carole Gibb. Gibb had changed the names of Pelican’s residents “to protect the innocent,” Brodersen joked. He had the challenge of changing the names back on the fly so Clauson could more easily follow.

“Grandma spent so many years reading to me,” Brodersen said. “And one of the things that really made her listen and process was reading Carole’s book.”

Until the end, Clauson “had a wonderful support network” of friends, Brodersen said. Both of Clauson’s children and her husband died before her, as well as Brodersen’s father, Clauson’s son-in-law. She was survived by one brother, Bill, Brodersen said. Brodersen is Clauson’s only grandchild, and cared for her at his home in Juneau on his own after his father died and before she secured a place at the Pioneers’ Home.

“Out of necessity we’re closer, since she was getting kind of low on relatives,” he said. “She was the only grandmother I ever knew.”

Despite enduring so much loss over the years, “she maintained a smile that could light up a room,” Brodersen said.

“This woman lost almost everyone in her life who was extremely important to her, the grief she weathered was unimaginable to me, and she did it with such poise and grace,” he said. “She was easily the strongest person I knew, that little old lady. But she was not afraid of crying.”

Brodersen said he’s been enjoying the project of piecing together his family’s past through the artifacts he’s found in the Pelican house. He discovered about 1,000 black and white photos, the fruit of Clauson’s trusty Polaroid camera. Clauson loved photography, and had “a very good eye and an analytical mind,” Brodersen said. Most places she and her husband went, Clauson would take a photo and hand the camera off to John, who would take a photo of the same location from his angle.

“There’s always two photos of every situation, and it’s fun to try to match them up,” Brodersen said. “Their entire lives are punctuated with neat anecdotes.”

Clauson’s adventurous spirit never compromised her effortless charm and kindness: “she never spoke an ill word of anyone,” Brodersen said.

“There was a graceful way she interacted with the world that made you want to sit up straight and be polite,” he said. “I’ll really miss that.”

Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

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