Expatriate Alaskans meet in Seattle for small-town reunion

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

Janis Jorgenson Rountree took a trip to Seattle but ended up on memory lane Sunday at the Juneau-Douglas Picnic.

Soon after arriving, the Juneau shopkeeper was reminiscing about kindergarten teachers with a classmate she hadn't seen in a decade. It was a typical moment at the 60th annual picnic, a gathering of past and present Juneau residents held in a Seattle park.

"There's no other city in any other state that does a picnic like this. You don't go to Las Vegas and find a Coeur d'Alane picnic," said Joyce Magorty, who drove to the gathering from Hot Springs, Mont.

Though other Alaska communities hold reunions out of state, the Juneau-Douglas Picnic is thought to be the largest - a testament to Juneau's unique community, so hard to get to and so hard to leave behind.

Lynne (Birch) Barcus and Toni Warner Pierce graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1955. The Juneau they grew up in was a town of 5,000 people, where the girls played hopscotch and jacks and kids ran to get home before the fire station whistle signaled curfew at midnight - not that they were all sugar and no spice.

Pierce fessed up to rolling garbage cans down hills, letting air out of tires and using a BB gun to shoot red lights out of the houses of prostitution that used to be common downtown.

"We had each other. We didn't have television and none of us had cars," Pierce said. "It was like a family."

Such stories might explain why the Juneau-Douglas Picnic is much like a family reunion.

The tradition was started in 1943 by a group of homesick war brides transplanted from Douglas, then a separate town, and Juneau to Seattle. On the third Sunday in July they decided to fill picnic baskets and gather the kids at Woodland Park. It was so much fun they did it again the next year - and the next and the year after that.

The picnic has changed little since then. In the 16 years Jim and Jane Wood organized the picnic they started providing coffee, cake and ice cream. The decade Pierre Sundborg was in charge the Seattle Park District finally recognized the picnic as an annual event, making it easier to get the same site each year.

This year Sundborg passed on the picnic responsibility to Barbara Guertin Nielsen, who promptly moved the event to Lincoln Park. Though the new site offers playground equipment, a wading pool, ballfields and bathrooms, there were predictable complaints about change and parking.

"She's bringing us into a new generation," Sundborg said. "This is a daring move."

With 300-plus picnickers Sunday, it may have been a smaller crowd than previous years, but Sundborg wasn't ready to blame the move. He'd spent two hours that morning waiting at the old Woodland Park site to redirect any lost Juneauites, and only saw a couple of men on a Sunday stroll.

It was probably the weather - almost cloudless, 80 degrees, the kind of weather Juneauites can't stand, he said.

"You get a better turnout on a Juneauish, drizzly kind of day than a sunny day," Sundborg said.

On Sunday people clumped in the shade to mingle and talk.

Picnickers often passed each other without making eye contact, instead staring at each others' chests. A quick scan of the name tag determined whether an exclamation and hug would follow.

"Tom Herrett?" gasped Martha Cole as she read the label on his plaid shirt.

"For Pete's sake!" Herrett answered as he read her tag.

"Oh wow, you used to be young," Cole said. That was back in 1958 when Cole graduated and Herrett was dating her sister. They haven't seen each other since. Now Cole lives in western Montana and Herrett in Port Angeles, Wash. Though he's lived there for 32 years, this is his first Juneau-Douglas Picnic. He didn't think he'd know anyone, but the greetings and hugs keep coming.

The next one came from Ann Akervick Maher, also at her first reunion picnic, spotting people she hadn't seen since fifth grade, when her parents moved from Juneau. That was 45 years ago, but she still remembered the names of the neighborhood dogs, whose younger brother always used to tag along, and being kissed in the coat closet in fourth grade.

Margie Alstead dragged out prepubescent memories of Maher in Girl Scouts and Rainbow Girls.

"We like the surprise of the picnic, not knowing who we might see," said Alstead, who came up from Fresno, Calif. for the event. She didn't leave it all up to chance this time though. She and four other girlhood friends planned a personal reunion around the picnic.

"We tend to meet here because it's kind of the center," Alstead said.

Known as the Five M's because their names all start with M, the gang of five middle-aged ladies came from five states for slumber parties, giggles and reminiscing back to their early teens.

"Our first slumber party we had at Marsha's house, only we never went to sleep," said Emily Stuart Sweet, who was called "Millie" when she was younger. "We snuck out of the house and walked across the Douglas Bridge in our pajamas."

Strolling the darkened city streets in lingerie is not something they'd want their granddaughters doing now, but it does demonstrate how much society has changed since the 1950s, Alstead pointed out.

In some ways the Five M's have changed less than the city they grew up in. Their gatherings almost always include made-up rituals, sometimes involving humorous masks or silly hats, the giggles of girls and the wisdom of women.

"We still have a lot of fun together," Alstead said. "Being with old friends gives you permission to be who you were then."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at stansabbatini@yahoo.com.

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