Author wins award for aviation work

Denali Award catches Juneau's Jim Ruotsala by surprise

Posted: Monday, March 06, 2000

For decades, Jim Routsala's passion for aviation and history has fueled his writing career. This month, the author is flying high as he heads north to accept an award from the Alaskan of the Year Committee.

With more than 80 published articles, a collection of more than 3,000 aviation photographs and a self-published book that recently went into its second printing, Routsala is considered one of Alaska's top authorities on the Last Frontier's aviation history. On March 25, the Alaskan of the Year Committee will present the author with the Denali Award.

`It caught me flat-footed,'' said Routsala, from his home in Juneau. ``It was sure nice, but the news just came from left field.''

The Denali Award, which has been presented since 1989, recognizes the outstanding performance by a living Alaskan over a period of years in a single project or endeavor.

``We're very interested in preserving the history of Alaska for future generations,'' said Jay Page, president of the Alaskan of the Year Committee. ``He's done a great job of cataloging what happened over the years in aviation in Alaska. His photos are priceless.''

From the age of 9, Routsala was captured by the romance of aviation. He would spend his days in and around the Alaska Coastal Seadrome Hangar, now known as the Hangar on the Wharf, watching the pilots work.

``When I was a kid, pilots loved kids. There was a certain comradeship between adults and kids who loved planes,'' Routsala said.

Shell Simmons, Bob Ellis, Ray Meeks and other pilots who later became Alaska legends became the young author's role models.

Years later, Routsala left Juneau to pursue a military career in both the Army and the Navy, where he was trained and worked as a photo-journalist.

After the service, he became divisional manager at P.F. Collier, a subsidiary of MacMillan Publishing, in Honolulu for 11 years. Upon his return to Alaska, Routsala settled in Anchorage where he worked as the marketing director for Air Alaska. He returned to Juneau in 1991 to become the first commander of the Civil Support Battalion of the Alaska State Defense Force and a lieutenant in charge of security officers at the Capitol and the State Office Building. He retired in 1996.

In his spare time, Routsala wrote articles and collected photographs about aviation, concentrating on the history of Alaska's aviation.

Three years ago, he published his first book, ``Pilots of the Panhandle: Aviation in Southeast Alaska, the Early Years, 1920-35.'' Later this year, he plans to publish two sequels titled, ``Alaska Wings Against the Winds, 1935-1946'' and ``World War II: Alaska Wings to War,'' a military history of Southeast Alaska.

``Aviation opened up Alaska, there's no doubt about it,'' Ruotsala said.

``Aviation used to be a pleasant experience but flying commercially is not fun anymore,'' he added. ``I like to write about old aviation. Anything later than 1965 is just not that interesting to me.''

The Denali Award is one of four awards that will be presented at this year's annual Alaskan of the Year banquet, which will be held in Anchorage. Ruotsala will share the stage with U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the recipient of the Alaskan of the Century award.

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