Celebrating 101 years

Tlingit elder's wishlist includes world peace and the wild game stews of his youth

Posted: Friday, November 13, 2009

Walter Soboleff has done a lot in his 100-plus years on Earth, but his family's gift of a cruise through the Panama Canal is something new.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"I've never been on a vacation cruise," Soboleff said last week before leaving town for the trip. "Never out on the ocean in warm weather. I think I will just be taking a rest, seeing the canal and the gates open and the ships passing through. I know I will be leaving my wool shirt at home."

As a child, Soboleff never knew what a birthday party was, and through high school and college he never paid any attention to his birthday. He turns 101 on Saturday.

"My parents would say, 'This is your birthday Walter,' and that is all," he said.

Soboleff's mother, Anna Hunter, was a Tlingit orphaned in Sitka who traveled to Killisnoo, which is located 2 miles southeast of Angoon, by canoe with her brother to stay with an aunt. His father, Alexander Soboleff, the son of Russian Orthodox reverend Ivan Soboleff, lived in Killisnoo with his parents and three brothers. Walter was born in Killisnoo in 1908 and grew up in Tenakee just 10 steps from the U.S. Government School.

"I loved every class there," Soboleff recalled. "I loved the red school, its smell in the rain, the sound of the bell and writing on my slate in English and Tlingit ... and I remember the biggest lesson I ever learned in the chapel there, 'Take care of the old person you are going to become.'"

At 5 years old, he began boarding at Sitka's Sheldon Jackson School. At 10, he interpreted for a visiting doctor during the 1918 flu epidemic. He had a thirst for knowledge and civic duty.

"I really admired the Gettysburg Address and would recite it in Tlingit," he commented on a favorite lesson. "Abraham Lincoln was one of my heroes. It's a great speech, a gem, he just put the words together so wonderful."

Other early role models Soboleff cites are his father, who died when Walter was 12, and mother; Booker T. Washington; and Rudyard Kipling. Another influence was the the Tlingit Rev. George Benson, who made a written Bible translation of which only the gospel of John is known to exist today, Soboleff said.

"He could open the Bible and make a free translation of English into the Tlingit language," Soboleff said. "And he could do it so beautifully."

In 1925, while a freshmen at Sheldon Jackson High School, Soboleff took his first real job earning 25-cents an hour working 10 hours a day at a Hood Bay fish cannery. He would continue working at a fish plant in Killisnoo in the summers.

"It was a lot of back breaking work," Soboleff said. "None of the modern machinery like today. That was the way life was then ... you had to work hard, you couldn't just sit and earn money. We were just coming into the Western culture and cash economy, we would work part-time and other time prepare food for the winter."

In 1928, Soboleff left Sitka on board an Admiral Lines steam ship to Seattle and hitchhiked to Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State.

"My four years of high school were wonderful, it was such an exciting time of learning," Soboleff gushed. "But college, now that was exciting. You have to study to produce; you just can't talk off the cuff all the time. A lot of people do that and it's like hot air."

The Great Depression limited him to just a semester of science at OAC and he hitchhiked to Seattle via freight train, staying at a YMCA. He received a scholarship in 1933 to the University of Dubuque in Iowa, earning a bachelor's in education in 1937 and graduate degree in divinity in 1940. In the summer, he'd return to Alaska and work on the seine boats out of Sitka or the cold storage.

The price of salmon then included humpies selling for 4 cents a fish, dog salmon for 5 cents, and red salmon for 35 cents.

"You could buy something for a dollar in those days," Soboleff said.

After college and ordainment, he married Haida sweetheart Genevieve Ross and settled in Juneau as pastor of the Memorial Presbyterian Church - now Northern Light United Church - in 1940, broadcasting half of the service over the radio each Sunday morning. He would also do news in Tlingit for the town and short meditations out to the fishermen. His Tlingit congregation soon grew to include all racial and ethnic groups. Ministry travel via the vessels Princeton Hall, Anna Jackman, and "an assortment of fishing boats if needed," included many small villages, lighthouse stations, and logging camps in Southeast Alaska.

"I loved the boats and the routes we took and the people I met," Soboleff said. "Time seemed to go by so fast and I think I learned more than I taught."

Genevieve Soboleff died in January 1986. Walter remarried in 1999 to Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, who passed away last April. He has four children: daughter Janet C. Burke, and sons Sasha, Walter Jr., and Ross Vincent Soboleff.

He only stopped driving four years ago because he figured he should stop while he was ahead and because there was no place he needed to go in a hurry.

When asked what he wanted for his birthday, Soboleff smiled and thought about the big wild game stews he grew up on. Then he asked for no more wars.

"What do people fight about? Isn't this a civilized world? Nobody wins."

He was adamant in dislike for airport security checks and shoe removals and the fear that exists today.

"Do we have to live like this? Is it necessary? People are getting so used to accepting this. It is crazy. And races not liking each other ... Alaska had it and the United States had it. People just can't grow up. The world needs a good philosophy of life. My philosophy of life is tolerance, it doesn't hurt you."

Walter Soboleff, born Kha'jaq'tii (One Slain in Battle), paused as he looked at the tribal art adorning his trailer walls; the art of the Raven moiety and Dog Salmon clan in the Tlingit nation.

"Sh yáa.awudanéiyi a kwáan," he said in Tlingit. "Respect People. Respect yourself, too, and other people will respect you."

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