Fairbanks-born journalist reports on covering Alaska beat

Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2004

Stanton "Stan" Patty has been writing about Alaska and the Yukon for more than 50 years. Alaska was his beat when he was a reporter, and later assistant travel editor, with The Seattle Times. For that newspaper he covered the war in Vietnam in 1965 and reported on international fisheries negotiations in Tokyo, Moscow, Geneva, Vancouver and elsewhere. He worked for the Times for 34 years, retiring in 1988. He took a leave of absence from the Times in 1968 to serve as the state of Alaska's first director of international fisheries.

Patty was born in Fairbanks in 1926 when Fairbanks had only 1,555 residents. His father, Ernest N. Patty, managed gold mining operations at Coal Creek and Woodchopper. He spent his summers in mining camps where placer dredges, "rumbling like landlocked dreadnoughts, tore gold from the frozen ground." He got his first reporting job in 1949 with the Longview Daily News in southwestern Washington. Then it was on to the Times, where he eventually wangled the Alaska beat. One of his first stories was about bush pilot Don Sheldon.

In "Fearless Men and Fabulous Women," Patty has mined his old articles and written chapters based on them with the aid of his vast general knowledge of the Last Frontier. Much of the book is engaging, although he has a very bad habit of making ordinary statements into quotes, such as "Well, let's get out and have a look around." Good journalists know that this is bad copy, even if it is being said by Don Sheldon after he has just landed on the Kahiltna Glacier "runway" of Mt. McKinley. Reporting on Sheldon's moving to Alaska in 1948, Patty quotes him as saying, "Came back to stay. Been here since." And so on.

Although it was well before his time, Patty gives himself permission to dip into the history of the Klondike Gold Rush by noting that he met Klondike Kate Rockwell in 1948, when the belle was 71 years old. This brief entrée allows him to tell about Kate's career and famous romances with bartender Alex Pantages and miner Johnny Matson.

The best chapters deal with original adventures such as his first-person coverage of the 1964 earthquake, his visit with the Choate family in the Aleutians and his days with a whaling crew on the ice off Point Hope in 1964 and 1965.

Much of Patty's journalism is of the "most famous character I ever met" variety. He met and engaged in conversation such characters as Smokey Stover, Kodiak's junk dealer; Donna Blasor-Bernhardt, the poet of Tok; and Stan Price, the "bear man of Admiralty Island." When he hasn't met the people he writes about, he sometimes borrows a story-such as the tale of Dammit the burro, a work animal that spent its retirement years in Ketchikan in the 1940s. In Chapter 12, he borrows from Ernie Pyle an interview Pyle conducted in Eagle in 1935. He has no qualms about borrowing from the pages of the Alaska Southeaster jokester Oliver Bikar's story of a famous April 1, 1974, prank in Sitka. Returning again to the glory days of the Klondike, he even borrows from an article his mother wrote about Robert Service in the 1950s for the Alaska Weekly, and from a journal his 12-year-old granddaughter kept in 1986 during a road trip on the Alaska Highway.

If the character lived long before there were reporters, like Ivan Veniaminov, AKA Saint Innocent, Patty still claims him. His chapter about Veniaminov begins, "It seems that I have been tagging along with Ivan Veniaminov for most of my life. I found him here in Sitka...in Kodiak...in the wind-whipped Aleut village of Unalaska...in Irkutsk...[and] At an ancient monastery near Moscow." That calculated ingenuousness might work with readers Outside who don't know Veniaminov was born in 1797, but to the rest of us, it seems rather far-fetched. To write, "I figure he would be more than six feet tall," is ridiculous when historians record in many places Veniaminov's height.

True, this would be a less amusing "memoir" if it omitted the tales of Soapy Smith, Saint Innocent, Klondike Kate and Bikar's "volcanic eruption." Perhaps Patty should be allowed the eccentricity of claiming those stories as his. However, it is not amusing when, in the chapter "Unstoppable Women," Patty dispenses with artist Dale DeArmond with 12 lines; and with first lady Neva Egan, Ruth Allman (Judge James Wickersham's devoted niece) and conservationist Mardie Murie in nine lines each.

Briefs like those become even more annoying when one reaches the next-to-last chapter, "Best Friends," in which Patty spends many more than nine or 12 lines on his dogs. We know the precise manner of death of the German shepherd Lili; we do not know the fate of Edith Bullock or Josephine Crumrine. To add insult to injury, there is a photo of Lili-but none of Bullock, DeArmond, Allman or Murie. One might blame this unbalanced reporting on the book's editors, but Patty himself should have known better.

"Fearless Men and Fabulous Women: A Reporter's Memoir from Alaska & the Yukon"

By Stanton H. Patty. Epicenter Press. 295 pages. Paperback. $17.95.

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