A general sense of Bea Shepard’s level of engagement with her community can be gathered by hearing how the 94-year-old Juneau resident spent the last week of her life: On Sunday, she gave a sermon at the Douglas Community United Methodist Church, on Wednesday she organized and attended community movie night, and on Friday, the day she died, she co-hosted a First Friday opening at Aunt Claudia’s Dolls, the downtown museum she started several years ago. In between those activities, she worked on the final two chapters of her book, organized her art collection in preparation for her move to the Pioneer’s Home and spent time socializing with friends.
That overview hints at some of her roles — lay preacher, writer, arts enthusiast — but leaves out many others: scientist, adventurer, musician. All of which, friends say, she pursued full force.
“I think the part I’ll miss the most is her enthusiasm for life,” said longtime friend Debra Gerrish. “She was always, ‘OK, let’s go!”
According to Gerrish, Shepard was smiling broadly in the moments before she collapsed in the crosswalk at Franklin and Front Streets on Nov. 1, as she made her way over to El Sombrero for dinner with Gerrish and her husband, John — the trio’s usual First Friday routine. She never regained consciousness, and died in the hospital surrounded by friends.
“I think she hung in there a little longer just to help us get used to the idea that she might not be around,” said close friend Mary Ellen Frank, a highly regarded doll maker and Shepard’s First Friday co-host.
Shepard’s wide-ranging interests were often pursued in collaboration with Claudia Kelsey, her companion for more than 65 years. Both women were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in 2007 for their “outstanding contributions to the community and citizens of Juneau and the state of Alaska.”
Shepard, a microbiologist by trade, arrived in Juneau in November of 1946 at age 27 with Kelsey, after accepting what she considered to be a temporary a job with the Territory of Alaska’s Health Department lab. She ended up working in the lab for 31 years.
“They came like everybody else does, with the idea that they would stay a couple years,” Gerrish said. “Bea said they were here about three weeks and they knew this was it, this was where they wanted to spend their lives.”
In an Empire article in August 2007, Shepard said she and Kelsey decided to stay because “Alaska is full of incredible people.”
The women had the chance to meet some of those people during a trip around the state in 1951 while working on a book, “Wild Edible Plants of Alaska,” commissioned by the U.S. Air Force as a resource for military pilots who might be shot down without food in the wilderness. Kelsey was hired as the illustrator and Shepard as scientist, joining author and project director Christine Heller.
“The three of them set out on a grand adventure,” Gerrish said.
They traveled all around the state by small plane, whaling boat and umiak, with stops in remote areas and villages. One of the people they met and befriended was Chester Seveck, of Kotzebue, the man whose face appears on the side of Alaska Airlines’ planes, who was their umiak guide for several plant-gathering trips.
Soon after they got back to Juneau, the women began making plans for permanent residence in Alaska, eventually building their own home out in Auke Bay in the late 1950s on a piece of forested property they bought from Dora Waydelich Spaulding, daughter of Wes Waydelich and his Tlingit wife, who had owned it since the 1890s. Shepard and Kelsey did all the construction work themselves, getting advice from electrician and plumber friends and hosting work parties from time to time. Gerrish said she thinks Shepard got the idea to build the house from an article she read in the men’s magazine “Popular Mechanics.”
“She said, ‘Well I can do this.’” Gerrish said.
From the very beginning, both women were also very active members of the church, first attending the Juneau Methodist Church downtown, located where the Dimond Courthouse is now.
“They got into town and they were both singing in choir that Sunday,” Gerrish said.
The women were instrumental in getting the Douglas Community United Methodist Church built and in founding the Eagle River United Methodist Camp at Mile 28, Gerrish said, adding that Shepard’s faith was one of the most important things in her life.
“She lived her faith. She didn’t talk the talk, she walked the walk,” Gerrish said. “Her whole life was about doing for others.”
Shepard also had a regular radio program on KTOO with Cy Peck called “History without Headlines,” interviewing elderly local residents about their lives, was an amateur photographer and a musician. Gerrish said during World War II, prior to moving to Alaska, Shepard played in an all-female orchestra in California (most of the men were overseas).
“She played the flute, the oboe, and she could play a mean harmonica,” Gerrish said.
A big supporter of the arts, Shepard was a longtime docent at the Alaska State Museum and a strong advocate for the new State Libraries Archives and Museums building for many years, lobbying at the Legislature and helping build community support at a time when the project wasn’t very popular.
“The museum owes a lot to Bea,” said Frank, who worked with Shepard at the Aunt Claudia’s Dolls museum. The museum was named after Kelsey, who died in 2007 at 95. Shepard started the museum as a way to honor her memory and showcase her extensive doll collection.
“She was devoted to Claudia,” Frank said. “Claudia always said ‘I’m not a collector because I never bought any of these dolls, they were all given to me. And Bea would say, ‘I don’t even like dolls!’” Frank laughed.
“Claudia was kind of the sweetheart and Bea was a bit of the cantankerous one.”
Shepard and Frank expanded the collection over the past five years, hosting openings every First Friday and keeping regular public hours. The museum will continue in Shepard’s absence thanks to a trust established for that purpose.
Frank said right before she died, Shepard had spent her first few nights at the Pioneer’s Home. Up until that point, the 94-year-old had been living alone in the house out at Auke Bay.
“She’d just set up her room at the Pioneer’s Home ... and it was like an art gallery, just wall to wall art,” Frank said.
When she died, Shepard was working on the final two chapters of her second book, about the Methodist camp and its history.
In her final years, Shepard also contributed regular columns to the “Living and growing” feature of the Empire’s Neighbors section that focused on her faith, reminding readers of chances to bring the teachings of the Bible into our everyday lives.
Gerrish said Shepard and Kelsey were living examples of how that can be accomplished.
“Everybody loved them because they were always so kind to everybody else,” she said.
Shepard’s service is scheduled for Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. at the Douglas Community United Methodist Church.