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A teacher's journey to Juneau

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2007

Ellis Peter Bibb, 84, former high school shop teacher and ski coach, has a lot of stories to tell.

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At our meeting on Oct. 18 at the Juneau Empire, Bibb shared his large folder of laminated photos with me. He spoke loudly, his voice reaching all corners of the newsroom.

As we poured over photos, Bibb dropped many names of former Juneau students and other acquaintences. But he referred to his students with a kind of tenderness and accuracy that showed their significance to him.

As Bibb talked about his life, I mostly listened. My soft voice was difficult for him to hear. But it was OK. I didn't have to ask many questions. He knew what I wanted to know.

I could tell from just listening that Bibb was an accomplished and talented educator - a teacher at heart.

HIS START

Known in town as Peter, Bibb and his wife, Mary (deceased), moved to Juneau before statehood in the 1950s as teachers.

"They were quietly dedicated to students and families all around," said Bibb's daughter, Aimee Bibb Roesel. "They were shy people and busy with family."

But the interesting part about Bibb's journey to Juneau were the circumstances that led him here. At the start of World War II, Bibb worked at a shipyard in Chesapeake Bay, Va.

"I had a safe job in the shipyard," he said. "I would have stayed there all my life in the state of Virginia, never doing anything really, never seeing anything, never going anywhere."

But when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, Bibb said it changed his life for the best. While serving at a German ski troopers barracks, Bibb picked up skiiing, which he enjoyed doing with local German and Norwegian boys.

But the trouble came when he was done serving.

"When it came time to graduate, I couldn't get a job to save my neck," Bibb said. "So I put my name in a teacher's agency in Denver."

Bibb wound up teaching shop, on the GI bill, at a little school in Wisconsin. The combination of his skiing and teaching experience landed him a job in Juneau.

"And to show you there's something in your life more than you that's directing you, Dr. Rue was on the school board here in town," Bibb said. "He was looking for a shop teacher and somebody with skiing (experience). And that got me the job skiing."

Bibb bought homestead land along Thane Road, built a log cabin and raised a family. He fell in love with Alaska.

"I saw the mountain and sea here, and I thought, this is the perfect place for me," Bibb said.

And so began Bibb's Juneau journey as an influential skiing and carving instructor.

SKIING

While pioneering the high school ski team, he recalled many ski practices up the Dan Moller ski trail.

"I had about 15 hard-nosed kids who were willing to walk 3½ miles to go skiing," Bibb said. They included Clark Gruening, Barbara Lindh, who was then Barbara Boochever, and Joe Heuisen.

As a project for his shop class, Bibb suggested the students build a warming hut at their ski spot.

"We pre-fabbed this warming hut," Bibb said. "We built it up about 6 feet off the ground so when the snow (came), we could walk in the door in the winter time."

"We had one ski trip a year," Bibb said. "We used to raise part of the money ourselves. We had bake sales, and they'd sell pies at dances and auction them off."

Bibb opened a folder of laminated photos he carried with him. One photo was a black-and-white of him posing with seven nicely dressed students next to an airplane.

"This is Clark Gruening here," he said. "This is Fred Baxter and Joe Heuisen. They are in town now still. ... Notice they got a tie on and so forth, and the coach didn't have a tie. Now I regret that after looking at that."

He showed me another photo of five women with bobbed haircuts. The writing on the photo said, "All-Alaska C.C. Team 1963."

"This is the first girls' ski team that I know of in Juneau," Bibb said. "(This is the) first time girls raced cross-country."

Bibb pointed out Lindh, who works at the ski area now and is the mother of Hilary Lindh, winner of the downhill silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

"(Peter Bibb) was a very large part of making winter recreation a passion for me," Barbara Lindh said. "He developed ski teams at the high school by showing us that hard work and training would pay off."

Lindh said part of his program was calisthenics on Monday nights; hiking to the "second cabin" after school on Tuesday and Wednesday, to run gates with lanterns hung on bamboo poles; setting a cross-country course for Friday's race on Thursdays at Montana Creek; racing on Friday; and training and racing on the weekends at the "third cabin."

According to Lindh, Bibb coached many Juneau skiers.

"Because of Pete Bibb, there are a lot of ski enthusiasts in this town," Lindh said. "We worked hard and had a lot of fun and were astonishingly successful against Anchorage, even though they had several ski areas with lifts."

"Our success was due largely to Pete introducing us to a rigorous pre-season conditioning and the resulting team-building camaraderie that inspired us to ski our best," Lindh said. "Pete Bibb has become in retrospect one of the most influential people in my life."

But after about a decade of skiing, Bibb said competition got stiff in Anchorage.

"We couldn't really train for going up there," he said. "It became dangerous for us to run the hills."

That is when Bibb tried to get out of skiiing.

"I went over to Superintendent Sears, and I said, 'I'd like to get out of skiing, Mr. Sears,'" Bibb said. "He looked at me, he said, 'Shop teachers are a dime a dozen.' I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Sears.'"

CARVING

Bibb admitted he never was formally trained in carving.

"I didn't learn," he said. "I learned by doing."

One year, while taking a leave of absence, Bibb toured museums across the country that featured Alaska Native items.

"One in Washington, D.C., the national museum there, has rooms of Native boxes here (from Alaska)," Bibb said. "I traveled all over, and ... like the kids, we learned by doing."

Bibb started his high school carving class in the late 1960s.

"About that time, Ray Peck and Tom Paddock, two Native boys in my woodshop (class) wanted to start carving," Bibb said. That's when Bibb asked the high school principal to add a carving class. The principal said to try it for one year.

"But it went over so good," Bibb said. "And the girls could do just as well as the boys ... weaving and things they did. And we tried everything, every media, leather and everything, and it went over so good that for the next 10 years or so until I retired, I taught carving."

Bibb also taught carving at the local prison.

"I found out that carving works where people are trapped, like in school, and in the prison they're trapped," Bibb said. "They turned out some of the most beautiful work in the prison there. ... A lot of boys from up north were in there too and did beautiful carving, and ... they had no problem selling their work."

One of Bibb's memorable pupils was a student he had for about two years, Darryl Andy, now a senior at Coquille High School in Oregon. Andy's family, a Yupik family from Bethel, was friends with Bibb's daughter.

"I wasn't doing anything, and he wasn't doing anything himself, so they lined us up together," Bibb said about Andy. "He wanted to learn how to carve, and he turned out to be a very talented boy."

Andy took one of his paddles to a community college in Oregon.

"They were very impressed," Bibb said. "They gave him a two-year scholarship and put his paddle in the local museum."

Andy described the circumstances of his friendship with Bibb.

"I got him out of a rut, and he got me into a hobby," Andy said in The World, a daily newspaper based in Coos Bay, Ore.

After officially retiring from teaching in 1976, Bibb worked at Eaglecrest for a couple years as a lift operator. After Eaglecrest, he opened a small carving business.

"I had it for eight years," Bibb said in The World. "But I just wasn't a businessman. A tourist would come in and want to buy something, and I wouldn't want to sell it to them - I wanted to teach them how to do it instead."

Bibb still teaches carving recreationally in Oregon.

LOOKING BACK

"(I) believe you have a guardian angel that helps you along the way," Bibb said. "(I) couldn't have done it back in Virginia to start with. There had to be somebody helping me along the way. And I've lucked out on a good family."

Four of Bibb's children still live in Juneau. One son is a photographer in New York, and Roesel lives in Coquille.

"The art has been so rewarding for (my father) and also for many students who were gently guided and encouraged by him," Roesel said.

"It's been an interesting life," Bibb said. "I've had a great life."

• Kim Andree can be reached at kimberly.andree@juneauempire.com.



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