Part one was printed Sept. 30 and is available online at juneauempire.com/neighbors
Former mayor Bill Overstreet has a reputation for being a Juneau champion. Once he and Jean, his wife, had decided Juneau was the place for them, both were hard at work in the community and continue to volunteer their time and energy to this day.
Overstreet taught eighth grade for five years at the Fifth Street School and Douglas, on the condition that he also coached the basketball team.
“The last thing Sterling Sears asked me before he hired me was, “Can you coach eighth grade basketball?” and I said, “Certainly.” Overstreet said of signing his contract to teach in Juneau, “And I went straight from there to the bookstore to get some books on basketball, so I’d know — I mean, I’d played basketball, so I knew a little, but I didn’t know much about coaching, and I still don’t.”
There were three schools in the area and with travel then being not much of an option, they would play each other.
“We three schools, St. Ann’s, Juneau and Douglas — St. Ann’s coach was a Thibodeau, who had a grocery store down on Willoughby Avenue, and he wanted to form a league, and he would buy a tournament, and we’d each play each other, home and away, so we’d have six games in each season. Well, we won all of our games, so we won a little trophy for being the Gastineau Channel champs, and we repeated it the next year.”
Though Overstreet earned a trophy for his years of coaching (a trophy he said he had a hard time finding a home for until he built a new school), he owes all his success as a coach to simply having outstanding players. He listed Roger Grummett, Andy Pekovich, Stuart Whitehead and Eric McDowell as the source of his success coaching at the schools.
He also noted that, during his time at the Fifth street school, before they managed to build new schools for the burgeoning young population, he and Liz Lucas taught the two eighth grade classes and he had 40 students and she had 36.
Overstreet considered himself a better administrator than a teacher and took over the job of principal a year after Floyd Dryden retired. He considered it a real honor and took advice from Dryden to heart as an administrator.
“He knew the name of every kid in that school. Every year he started out with that as his first task. He found a reason to go into every classroom every day, so he had a fair idea of what was going on in the school. So those were the things I learned from Floyd Dryden that were most important, and I lived long enough that we built a school that we named after him.” Overstreet said.
From Teacher to principal and eventually Superintendent, then director of the Alaska School Board Association — Overstreet dedicated about 20 years of his life to education in the state — even before it was a state — until he was able to retire when a new “20-and-out” law was passed.
He was there to see the changes made as the constitution was drafted and statehood was ratified.
He said that a board was created to govern the schools, and it was meant to keep politics out of the schools, though he noted that the board was “appointed by the governor and served at his pleasure.”
And though he sought to keep politics out of the school, he eventually decided to get into politics himself, running for assembly the year after he retired.
Through his career in education, traveling as the director of the School Board Association, he saw just about every part of Alaska — from nearly getting marooned on St. George in the Pribilof Islands to dealing with issues of banned dancing in village schools with strong religious influence — and he had friends around the state. When the issue of a capital move came up, Overstreet decided to run for Mayor to use his knowledge and connections to keep the capitol in Juneau.
“I chose to run for mayor because I felt I had enough contacts throughout the state and knew more about the state probably than most people because I had traveled to all those places. So I thought I was a natural to lead that fight against it.” Overstreet said, “I ran for mayor and won, and that just changed our lives completely at that point. And so everything after that became, in my mind, measured on the basis of ‘How does it fit the argument to keep Juneau as the capital?’ and I was good at that. That’s a very immodest statement, but it’s true. It inspired me and I think I inspired a lot of people..”
Overstreet proved savvy in his years as mayor, championing the cause of keeping the capitol there. He appointed a designee to the capitol move committee so he could retain the ability to criticize the committee and its decisions at any point.
Over the course of five or six years, he said, the construction of a new capital city was shown to be too expensive, especially at the cost of potential renovations to existing cities, and eventually the law that demanded a new capital was repealed.
“Everywhere I went and talked I first figured out what the local issues were first, in Anchorage they needed more houses, more streets, everything cities need as they grow and grow fast. So I would say, “Ok, you have your choice to build either a new, modern, up-to-date city for the bureaucrats of state government, or if you don’t do that, maybe you can fix up your town.” And I would always know how much their share of it would be.” Overstreet said.
Though the fight was long and hard, Overstreet did marvel that the city was never so united as during those years. He said they didn’t fight about anything, they just focused on keeping the capitol and improving Juneau as much as they could.
“Before we were sure of victory, we did have to place our attention on what Juneau would have to do to keep Juneau thriving as a city. We thought we should build a convention center, so there went Centennial Hall. We thought we should make it an attractive area for skiers, so we built the ski course. … We did improve ourselves along the way.” he said.
He also commented that Juneau seems to have been plagued with the fear of impermanence, “By and large, Juneauites have been afraid to invest in a town they don’t know if it will exist long term, so we’ve got a lot of crummy buildings where we should have monumental buildings.”
Overstreet is a supporter of projects like the State Library and Museum and is currently championing the whale project, a bronze statue that would be placed near the Juneau-Douglas bridge. Designed by Skip Wallen, the statue features barnacles in the formation of the eight stars on the Alaska flag, and is a water feature, such that the statue resembles, down to the way the water rolls of the giant marine mammals, a humpback breaching.
Once the capital move was stopped, Overstreet announced he would not seek reelection the following year. And at almost this exact time, he had the opportunity to entertain Asian investors at a Chamber of Commerce event and, subsequently, was offered the opportunity to represent Alaska abroad in Tokyo as a way to encourage business.
After consulting Jean, he accepted the offer.
He told Jean “I think I’m about to be offered a job in Tokyo.” he said, “And to my utter amazement, she said “Let’s do it.””
The Overstreets lived in Tokyo for a couple years, representing the state, and accumulating a number of humorous anecdotes along the way — mostly related to food.
Overstreet didn’t head to Tokyo unprepared. He consulted a former student who had married a Japanese woman and who had studied the culture extensively. The former student gave him a book and offered advice, notably, when Overstreet asked, “How about this raw fish stuff?” the student responded, “Bill, you’ve got to stop thinking like such an Okie,” adding, “What you see as raw, the Japanese see as absolutely fresh.”
So the Overstreets decided “200 million people can’t be crazy, so our attitude ought to be, what they serve, we will eat and enjoy.”
And perhaps the concept of raw being “absolutely fresh” was taken to a whole new level when an couple dishes proved to be as fresh as they could be.
They had been invited by friends to a Tempura restaurant and Overstreet knew it would be fine because, he said, “there’s not an Okie in the world who can’t eat anything fried.”
“So we get to that place and we order whatever it was we wanted and our guest said he would order the appetizer for us. When the appetizer came it was about that much fish with his head still on it, otherwise he was clean, and he had been split, cut already for you to eat… but suddenly I noticed when I looked at the head that the damn thing was still breathing.” Overstreet recalled.
Another fresh experience involved live shrimp jumping across the table.
“I sat there amazed at myself because I thought it was so damn good. A little different, you don’t usually have things jumping on your plate at my house.”
In addition to the remarkable things like meeting the Emperor in Japan, championing Juneau as the capital and dedicating his life to serving the community, Overstreet enjoys many of the same things the rest of us do.
The Overstreets had always been quite into boating, and Bill even won the Salmon Derby one year.
Jean asked, “Did he tell you that the fish that I won second prize with in the derby was bigger than his? And he won first prize. Sometimes he leaves that out.”
“When I won it, the big joke was it was the smallest fish that had ever won the derby. It was 29 lbs. 2 oz. But it was a new car, so I could handle all the ribbing along with that.” Overstreet said, “ Strangely I had just bought a new car, so I sold it.”
The couple couldn’t quite agree on the weight of Jean’s fish (she said 33 lbs., he said 31) but up until about 10 minutes before the Derby ended, Jean was the winner, and no matter who won, her fish was bigger than his winner.
Jean may not have won the Derby, but her husband is proud to point out that she was the first recipient of the “Federal Woman of the Year” award, given to her in 1972 by the U.S. Coast Guard, her employer until she retired.
“I was really so surprised to have been selected, just the enormity of it. The Coast Guard was good to me.” Jean said.
Overstreet also good-naturedly said Jean wins the award for “Luckiest woman,” though it is obvious that he considers himself to be the luckiest man by the same standards.
From Waynoka, Okla. to Juneau to Japan and back, and many places in between (including summering in Arizona for the last 10 years), from sailor in the Navy to teacher to administrator and mayor, Overstreet has lived long and worked tirelessly, even today championing project he sees as important to the home he chose so many decades ago.