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Former Skagway resident and pioneer Alaskan Sheila Brena died peacefully early Saturday morning, April 10, 2010, at her home in Anchorage while surrounded by family and friends. She was 85.
Born Dec. 24, 1924, in Los Angeles, she was raised in Peace River, Alberta, Canada. Her mother, Olive (Lay) Simmons, was a lifelong school teacher in Alberta. Her father, Lester Simmons, was a stone mason and a craftsman. She had three brothers and one sister: Robert "Bob" Simmons, Harold "Hal" Simmons, Barbara (Simmons) Blakely and Errol R. Simmons.
After graduating from college in Alberta, Sheila taught school in a one-room school house in Alberta before moving to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, Canada, where she met her husband, Camillo "McGee" Brena. McGee was an Italian-American, recently honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, who helped with the Army's efforts to build the Alaska-Canada Highway. McGee had opened and was operating a barber shop and beauty salon in the Whitehorse Inn, and Sheila was one of his clients.
In the late-1940s, Sheila and McGee moved to Skagway, where McGee worked as a barber, cab driver and bartender for the Pack Train Saloon-a historic saloon with a legacy dating back to the first few days of the gold stampede in 1897.
In 1950, they purchased the Pack Train Saloon and operated it as the oldest operating saloon in Alaska until a few years after McGee died in 1968. During that time, Sheila became the first female member of the Alaska Bartenders Union. The current Pack Train Saloon was among the first major restorations of historic properties in Skagway. After studying Culinary Arts at Orange Coast College in California, Sheila opened and operated a restaurant in the building until she retired. She had quite a following for her homemade soups and bread pudding.
"Sheila was a caring and devoted mother," her family said. "She was a kind-hearted, well-educated, generous and strong-willed woman, with a passion for her family, education, cooking, flowers, trees, poetry, birds and environmental causes. She was happiest when she was cooking for a family gathering, teaching her grandchildren, tending her flowers, or reciting poetry from memory. She was a truly remarkable woman who will be missed by many."
She was prededed in death by her parents, and brothers and sister.
She is survived by her children, David L. Brena, of Skagway, Robin (Barbara) O. Brena, of Anchorage, and Maureen C. Brena, of Eagle River; grandmother and great-grandmother, Nonee; grandchildren, Davonne (Robert), Jeanette (Dave), Seth, Dara and John-Pat; and her great-grandson, Nicholas.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Audubon Society, P.O. Box 101161, Anchorage, AK 99510 in Sheila's name. Condolences may be sent to the Brena family at 1711 South Salem Drive, Anchorage, AK 99508-5154.