Original bell ringer this year's Juneau Grand Marshall

Posted: Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Grand Marshall of the Juneau 4th of July Parade will be Romer Derr, an active community member, business owner and ringer of the original bell at the July 4, 1959, statehood celebration.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I was surprised," Derr said about the Grand Marshall appointment. "(I) thought it was nice. But thought that there were a lot of people more important than I who could be doing it."

Derr goes on to explain, "It is the 50th anniversary of statehood. You need to find somebody who was associated with it at the time. Most of the people who were working on it at the time were older and therefore they're not around anymore. I was one of the young people and so, here I am."

Derr came to Alaska in 1956 during the Constitutional Convention and got caught up in the statehood movement.

He originally lived in Fairbanks working construction in the summer and with the airlines in the winter. He moved to Juneau for job security in the late 1950's as Fairbanks construction projects dried up.

In 1958, he was president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and was asked to put together a ceremony for celebrating statehood. He arranged to have three women participate, one holding the 49-star flag, one the Alaska state flag and the third ringing the bell 49 times.

The third woman couldn't get off work, so Derr was asked to ring the bell.

"It's basically an accident that I was the one who rang it," Derr said. "It was kind of neat. Pictures went out all over the country and I'd get letters from people that said, 'Bellringer Juneau, Alaska.' (You) could tell that a lot of people around the country were pleased that we were a state."

Since statehood, Derr's continued to be involved community affairs in Juneau. As he said, "When I moved here, I made up my mind that I was going to live and work in Juneau."

And he has.

He worked for, and eventually owned, Harri's Plumbing and Heating. He's a board member of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, has been a member of the Juneau Harbor Board, and was appointed to the Alaska Historical Commission.

Derr also has his family in Juneau: his wife, Laraine Derr, two daughters and two grandsons.

Fifty years later, Derr still says statehood was the "smartest thing Alaska ever did." He mentions the full citizenship Alaskans can now enjoy, with the ability to vote in elections and two senators and a representative in Congress.

One of the most important things about statehood, Derr believes, is it put Alaskans in charge of Alaska's resources.

"The resources, and the ability to work the resources, became endowed to the local people (who) had a chance at it. So it gave local people a better opportunity to make a living. (And) have some control of their destiny and the destiny of the lands around them. That was the big thing that happened, freedom, to make our own choices and sometimes, to make our own mistakes."

Derr goes on to say, "The people Outside want to make Alaska the last great state park. They don't want us to be able to make a living up here. They kind of consider us as inn holders at their park."

He cites the recent Couer Alaska Supreme Court case as evidence that the Alaskan's fight for Alaska still goes on.

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