Overstreet writes of world wars and city battles

Posted: Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Bill Overstreet has written his memoirs, and the movie rights are free.

Overstreet had an illustrious career in Juneau, serving as mayor, principal of two schools, school superintendent and as Gov. Walter J. Hickel's deputy chief of staff. He survived kamikaze dive bomb attacks in World War II, fought four capital move efforts and once had a whale surface under his boat off False Point Arden.

Overstreet just published ``An Okie's Life in the Alaska Rainforest.'' The book opens with an unusual caveat: ``Any part of all of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by the means of your choice. Playwrights, television producers and movie-makers are invited to have at it.''

Overstreet, 74, will be signing copies of his new book at a reception from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Hearthside Books in Nugget Mall.

Overstreet called the book a fast read.

``Some of it's mayoring and the capital fight, some is growing up in Oklahoma and winning World War II,'' he said.

He's proud of his accomplishments, and he's quick to poke fun at some of his misadventures. The book is filled with quirky Juneau trivia and history -- the origin of the state flags on Egan, the borough's attempt to annex Angoon in the 1960s and the infamous Blue Ticket ride to Seattle for undesirable citizens.

Overstreet said he was inspired to write by the autobiography of Ben Franklin and a biography of Malcolm X, as well as the book ``Angela's Ashes,'' which he said was especially moving.

``I feel like an impostor even picking up a pen after reading something like that,'' he said.

Overstreet dropped out of high school in the early 1940s in Oklahoma and later went back and earned a GED. He lied about his age and joined the Navy at 16. He served aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Portland and relates tales of kamikaze attacks and naval battles in the Pacific. He was aboard the Portland in September 1945 when the Japanese boarded the ship to sign the documents of surrender in Truk Lagoon.

When Overstreet came to Juneau with his young family in 1952, the bars were open from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. and South Franklin Street was a thriving red light district. One local pastime was driving out to the city dump on Thane Road to shoot rats and watch bears root through the garbage.

Overstreet taught eighth grade and went on to serve as the territorial elementary education supervisor, a job that took him all over Alaska. He also fished commercially for several summers.

In 1962 he won the Golden North Salmon Derby with a 29-pound king, the smallest fish to win the derby at the time.

``The prize of a new Chevrolet made it easy to take the ribbing about size,'' he wrote.

Overstreet fought capital-move efforts in 1960 and 1962, and stumped across the state again for the cause as Juneau's mayor in 1978 and 1982. He served as mayor from 1976 to 1983. He worked for economic diversification, especially the development of tourism and mining and pushed for the reopening the Alaska Juneau Gold Mine. He also supported Chuck Keen's efforts to build a tram to the top of Mount Juneau during that period.

``I have often wondered what Juneau might be if we had a dozen dreamers like Chuck, and a few dozen fewer naysayers,'' he wrote.

He represented Alaska in Tokyo for the state office of international trade, and served on Gov. Hickel's staff. He began ``snowbirding'' in the early 1990s, living part of the year in Arizona and part in Douglas.

Overstreet said friends have been after him for years to write his recollections. He said the book is his first experience as a writer, and he was encouraged by Ben Franklin, whom he paraphrased.

``It keeps you from boring your friends to death with stories -- if they buy the book, it's their own fault,'' he said, laughing. ``It also enables one to bask in glory. One wouldn't write a memoir to embarrass oneself.''

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