Giving to the community

Juneau Color

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2004

In the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," the Tinman is rewarded with a heart, the Scarecrow a brain and the Cowardly Lion finds a little courage.

Laraine Derr of Juneau has all of these qualities and more, her friends say.

Derr has been involved in community volunteer work in Juneau for years and is busy making the costumes for this year's high school spring musical, "The Wizard of Oz." The musical is scheduled to run Feb. 13, 14 20 and 21.

"She is a person who can accomplish more in one day than I or anyone else can accomplish in a month or a year," said Derr's longtime friend, Marjorie Quisenberry of Juneau.

And like Dorothy Gale - Derr found a place to call home.

Derr and her husband, Romer, live on View Drive, appropriately named for the glorious view of the Mendenhall Glacier that Derr proudly shows from the living room window. The Derrs have a large house with several rooms, but they each also have one room where they work, play or just putter around.

For Laraine, it's a cozy, well-lit upstairs room over the garage where she is making the costumes. She used to have to share the space with Romer, but now she calls it her own.

She's been involved with the costume design of the spring musical for 14 years - as evidenced by neatly piled stacks of fabric, drawers, canning jars of buttons and a collection of costume jewelry.

"I enjoy young people," Derr says while taking a break from sewing. "It not only gives me an outlet for creativity, but it gives me my high to be with the kids."

Derr's costume work with the spring musical started the year her son, Calvin, now 32, was stage manager for that year's production of South Pacific. Derr helped coordinate the costumes. Every year since she has made the costumes with help from friends.

Her costume design work came full-circle this year. She plans to use the blue and white-striped sailor outfits from "South Pacific" to dress the Lollipop Kids in "Wizard of Oz." The self-taught seamstress will work with 90 to 100 costumes and has already had good luck: she found $5 in the jeans pocket of the Scarecrow costume.

Derr came from humble roots while growing up in rural Nebraska. Her parents, Lillian and Harry Diekmann, were itinerant farmers who moved Derr and her four younger brothers around Nebraska to operate various farms. They grew vegetable gardens, raised pigs and cows and made some money from the sale of eggs and cream, but they were otherwise poor. Derr attended one-room school houses through the eighth grade until she was bused 25 miles away to a school of 200 students. The family finally got running water when she was a senior in high school.

"I look back on it and it was a wonderful way to grow up, but I wouldn't go back to it," she said.

The Diekmanns, who instilled strong work ethics and values, helped Derr set three key goals in her life: graduate from college, visit Germany and live in Alaska.

When Derr was a junior in high school, she was among 264 students from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska who went to Germany to participate in President John F. Kennedy's People to People Exchange Program. The purpose of the program, she said, was to dispel the negative images of Americans at that time. It was 1962, a year after the Berlin Wall was erected. At one point, East German soldiers held at gunpoint a bus on which Derr and other students were riding to East Germany. The bus was held for four hours, but there was no violence.

After high school, Derr went to Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., where she received a teaching degree in chemistry with a minor in mathematics.

In 1967, she moved to Fairbanks. She relocated to Sitka in 1975 and arrived in Juneau in 1980.

While in Juneau, she has worked in several professional positions and volunteered throughout the community.

"My folks definitely believed in contributing to the community," Derr said. "They'd say if you want to make a place better you can't just say you want to make it better. You've got to do something about it."

And that's what she did.

In the mid-1990s, she joined the board of directors for the Southeast Alaska Food Bank after she learned its administration cost $120,000 a year. The non-profit agency was supposed to be feeding the poor, not lining the pockets of a top-heavy administration, she said. The Food Bank director moved to Anchorage, and Derr reduced the entire budget to $60,000 a year.

Derr is also president of the College of Fellows at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she received a master's of business administration degree in 1984. The College of Fellows is a group of community residents that supports the university financially.

Derr met Rosemary Hagevig of Juneau in 1981, when they both worked for the state Department of Education. Hagevig, a close friend, would later introduce the Derrs, who have been married for 11 years.

"I just think the world of Laraine," Hagevig said. "There isn't anything I've experienced that she can't do."

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