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Ketchikan man becomes resident centenarian

Posted: May 21, 2012 - 12:00am  |  Updated: May 21, 2012 - 12:02am
In this May 3, 2012 photo, Henry Nelligan speaks to the Ketchikan Daily News in Ketchikan, Alaska. Henry Neligan turned 100  but he's not acting the centenarian. (AP Photo/Ketchikan Daily News, Hall Anderson)  Hall Anderson
Hall Anderson
In this May 3, 2012 photo, Henry Nelligan speaks to the Ketchikan Daily News in Ketchikan, Alaska. Henry Neligan turned 100 but he's not acting the centenarian. (AP Photo/Ketchikan Daily News, Hall Anderson)

KETCHIKAN — Henry Neligan turned 100 this month, but he’s not acting the centenarian.

You might see him out walking Tongass Avenue, riding the bus or shopping at Tatsuda’s IGA.

If you’re at the Ketchikan Public Library, you might have to race him to get a Robert B. Parker mystery novel from the audio book section.

And if you are fortunate enough to cross paths with him, do stop and say hello.

Carpenter, carver, fisherman, musician, world traveler and gentleman, Henry Neligan is someone to know.

He was born May 6, 1912, in Craig to Edna Coombs Neligan, a Tlingit of the Raven Clan, and Henry Neligan, an immigrant from Liverpool, England, who passed his name on to his son.

“I think my mother was pretty smart, even though she wasn’t educated,” said Neligan, who remembers his mother fondly. “She knew a lot — I think she was where I got my smarts. ... What I have, of course.”

Neligan seasons his conversation with a dash of self-deprecating humor now and again. He knows humor is helpful when meeting new people.

“I found out long ago (that) all strangers are a little cautious, but if you can turn something into some kind of a little joke, then that breaks the ice and gets people laughing,” Neligan said. “And that gets you kind of home.”

“Home” during Neligan’s early childhood was Klawock until 1919, when he was sent to Kent, Wash., to attend the Briscoe Boarding School run by the Catholic Church.

Briscoe’s curriculum included music. The young Henry started playing the baritone horn, but he was really interested in trumpet.

“I wanted to play the trumpet and they finally let me do it,” Neligan recalls. “I have an ear for music.”

Neligan credits his mom for that, too.

“My mother was where I got my music,” Neligan smiles. “You should have heard my dad try to sing. It sure sounded funny.”

When he turned 16, Neligan went to stay with a family who had a dairy farm at Sumas, Wash., up near the Canadian border.

“They had extra room, and he had a herd of cows — 30 cows — and that meant a lot of work,” Neligan said. “And, I went to school. So you see I got no pay. I had to get up in the morning, get dressed in my work clothes to milk the cows and feed the cows and shovel the, you know, and haul it and put it in a pile. It was work. Then I came in and changed clothes and went out to catch the school bus.”

Neligan would stay there for three years until the onset of the Great Depression began to take its toll.

Unable to make ends meet from milk production, the dairy farmers began to sell their cows.

“Every month the price paid for the milk kept going down,” Neligan said. “This was in 1929. ... Everything was going downhill.”

So Neligan went up north. He recalls sailing aboard the Alaska Steamship Co. steamer Alameda to Craig, where he caught a ride aboard a boat to Klawock.

“I remember when I landed in Klawock, I knew I would be welcomed,” Neligan said.

His grandfather was still alive, and made arrangements for Neligan to stay with a relative who had a house with extra space in Klawock.

Neligan recalls that the area’s abundance of natural foods helped blunt the Depression’s impact.

“It didn’t bother us up here, because the people in Klawock did a lot more living off the land than they do now, because it was there,” Neligan said. “So much stuff grows. The beaches in this country ... are alive with so much food, all kinds of stuff down there. And there are several kinds of edible bottom fish, ... and, of course, salmon.”

He began learning carpentry, carving and fishing.

He began his fishing career by crewing on seine boats. After a while, he had his own rowboat, then a power boat with a small heavy-duty engine.

Neligan began building boats, too.

“In my career, I built something like 52 boats, most of them small boats,” Neligan said. “But I built one 44-footer. I built three power boats with engines. But lots of rowboats. ... People ordered them. In fact most of my boats were built for people that ordered one. Summertime, I fished.”

Neligan built the 44-footer in 1950 at Crescent City, Calif., borrowing $4,000 from a bank in Grants Pass, Ore., and renting a boat shop that came with a boat shed, steam box and everything else he needed for $50 a month.

Once the boat was complete, Neligan brought it back to Southeast Alaska.

“I went seining with it, but decided I didn’t want to go seining anymore, so I sold it for $32,000,” Neligan said.

He continued trolling, though, just like he had continued to play the trumpet after he returned to Southeast Alaska from Washington state.

Neligan played in a band that included Paul Davis on trombone, Arthur Demmert on saxophone, and Neligan’s cousin, Bobby Armour, who “played bass drum with a foot pedal, played the guitar, and sang, when his turn come,” said Neligan.

“In Klawock, we used to play for dances,” he continued, noting that people enjoyed the big-band sound of band leaders like Les Brown and Harry James back then. “People used to dance. ... We’d make a few dollars.”

Neligan moved from POW to Ketchikan in 1963. He continued commercial trolling for salmon, operating mostly in the far outside water off Southeast Alaska.

“Outside,” Neligan said when asked where he would go fishing. “There were several of us. But the way we fished, if you ever went straight west, you’d come to China. There was no more islands outside of us.”

So, did he ever just head straight west? Well, no.

“I just decided that China could get along without me,” Neligan said.

In Ketchikan, Neligan continued working in carpentry. He helped build the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Tongass Avenue, and did some of the remodeling work on the Moose Lodge (Neligan is a life member of the Legion of the Moose).

Neligan finally obtained a driver’s license when he was 70. He hadn’t needed a car in the Craig-Klawock area because it didn’t have roads when he lived there. He didn’t get around to buying a car in Ketchikan until several years after moving here.

“Finally, I got an old Chevy,” he said. “It was easy to drive, and Ketchikan is easy to drive in.”

But he didn’t drive for very long before the Department of Motor Vehicles ended his motoring days.

“When I went to renew my driver’s license, they gave me a vision test,” Neligan said. “But I failed it. I didn’t really fail, but at 75, they didn’t think I should be driving, and maybe they were right.”

Neligan’s 75th year was filled with other milestone events. He met his second wife, Susie, when he was 75, and sold his troll boat and permit.

Neligan and Susie took a round-the-world trip that included a cross-Russia excursion on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Greece was a favorite part of the trip, and he quite enjoyed traveling by train.

But of all the places he’s seen, none has bested his home state.

“They don’t compare worth a darn,” Neligan said.

He’s kept busy in more recent years. He’s carved numerous halibut hooks over time, and is currently carving an adze.

His eyesight has dimmed to the point where he can work large-print crossword puzzles, but otherwise can no longer read or write. As such, he enjoys listening to the audio books from the library.

In addition to the library, Neligan spends time at the Rendezvous Senior Day Services. And while riding the bus here and there, he occasionally finds himself in conversation with inquisitive tourists.

“You’d be surprised how many different questions a bunch of tourists can ask,” he said, laughing. “Nice people.”

It sounds as though Neligan has known a lot of nice folks in his 100 years. Neligan said his friends from his early days are gone, but even now, “I have to say I have a lot of friends.”

He also has six children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, according to the Ketchikan Indian Community.

KIC is celebrating Neligan’s 100th birthday as part of the grand opening of its new Southern Southeast Alaska Technical Education Center Cafe at 651 Stedman St. on Saturday.

Asked to what he attributes his longevity, Neligan smiled his smile that spreads quickly through every line in his time-creased face.

“I’ll tell you,” Neligan said. “If you want to live long, pick long-lived parents.

“My dad lived to be 104,” he said.

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