Alter remembered as cold-weather pioneer

Juneau man played major role in bringing safe water to remote Alaska villages

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2000

Amos "Joe" Alter's work to provide safe water and sanitation for Alaskans and his service to communities around the territory and state brought him accolades during his career and after he died Thursday at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital. Gov. Tony Knowles ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff this Friday in his memory.

Alter, a U.S. Public Health Service engineer, served as territorial sanitary engineer for 21 years and was responsible for the safety of the water supply and food services. He lived in Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Juneau during his career in the fields of public health, environmental conservation and pollution control.

He was widely recognized as a pioneer in cold regions and authored more than a hundred environmental engineering papers.

"He was before his time as an environmentalist," said Juneau resident Bob Thibodeau. "And in water and sewer he was a visionary."

Thibodeau had known Alter since the latter's arrival in Juneau in about 1945, he said.

Alter in recent years had been especially interested in the causes of senior citizens, Thibodeau said, and was instrumental in ushering through the Fireweed Place project, which provides seniors apartments on Willoughby Avenue.

"He was the force behind Fireweed Place," said Fireweed Place manager Lorilyn Swanson. "If he believed in (a project), then he became dedicated to it."

Alter was the "last of the five Joes," Thibodeau said, referring to the five photographs in the Fireweed Place lobby representing Joe Juneau, "China Joe," Joe Rude, Joe Thibodeau and Alter. All had been remarkable for their service to the community except, maybe, Joe Juneau, he said.

Upon first arriving in Anchorage in 1944, Alter checked into the best hotel in town, turned on the tapwater and couldn't believe what was coming out of the tap, he said in a 1999 interview. "I knew I hadn't taken a bath, but the water was so dirty it looked like a lot of other people had."

The problem was endemic to the territory and was worse in the villages, he said.

He worked to introduce chlorine into Southeast water systems, but some people strongly objected to injecting the chemical into their water, in part because of taste, he said. "I became very unpopular in Ketchikan."

Alter described his sanitation work under territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening as that of "errand boy." One of those errands was to prepare testimony to convince Congress that Alaska desperately needed money to fight tuberculosis which raged throughout the territory. A big victory came in 1948, when Congress decided to give Alaska $1 million for health programs. The money helped launch the Arctic Health Research Center and hire health professionals to fight tuberculosis.

"Once Joe got involved in a project, he'd stay with it until he succeeded or it was impossible to continue," Thibodeau said. "He kept a network of friends throughout Alaska and was well-known in legislative circles as a lobbyist for his projects."

Fifty years after Alter arrived in Alaska, many villages still don't have running water and sewers, due largely to costs, he said in 1999.

But the state took huge steps toward better health by beating back tuberculosis and providing clean water to communities. "I've had a lot of errands," Alter said. "It's been a lot of fun."

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