Farewell, Rosalee

Local activist, former Assembly member to move on after 34 years

Posted: Friday, November 28, 2003

Rosalee Walker says she arrived in Juneau in 1967 with a rock-hard chip on her shoulder that gradually dissolved during the years she spent in the community. But every time she returns to Baltimore, Md., to visit her daughters, they note how her demeanor changes when she gets off the plane.

"I've got to get my scowl on," said Walker, 74.

That don't-mess-with-me scowl is a sign of independence necessary to survive in the big city to which Walker is returning, reluctantly, for good.

The former Juneau Assembly member, educator, legislative aide and community activist says medical concerns are forcing her to leave Juneau and return to her family and the place she used to call home.

But if the appearance of her half-packed-up condominium is any indication, Walker is Alaskan through and through. From the Alaska iron-on patch adorning her denim shirt to the wall crowded with Alaska art, her attachment to the state and the community is apparent.

"Back East, they really don't appreciate Alaskan art. But I told 'em they're going to have one Alaskan room in that city," she said, chuckling.

Walker came to Alaska with her then-husband, who had visions of hunting and survivalist living. Shortly after the move, they divorced, leaving her stuck without any money, but with a solid job at the state Department of Labor.

Later she taught sixth grade at the Capital School downtown for several years before she took a job with the Rural Alaska Community Action program. Walker was in charge of setting up Head Start programs - child-development programs for preschool children - in rural villages.

"She's had her hands in almost everything," said Gordon Jackson, business manager for Tlingit and Haida Central Council.

Jackson has worked with Walker on a number of projects, including those arising from President Lyndon Johnson's Model Cities program.

Juneau was selected as a model city and a Citizen's Participation Committee was formed to take on improvement projects.

"Just about everything that you see now had to be fought for. Folks like (Walker) were big instigators of organizing and getting behind projects and did a lot to get us excited about it," said Jackson, who worked on the committee.

Walker remembers helping get the city's bus system off the ground with a few minibuses in the early 1970s. She remembers fighting with city government for land for Juneau's first child care facility, which eventually was built over a creek.

"They gave us the worst piece of land they could find," she said.

Walker has kept up the fight to the last minute, lobbying most recently to thwart Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to do away with the Longevity Bonus program. That is one fight she lost.

"His plan has some flaws that have been overlooked. We weren't able to get through to his staff," she said.

Jackson said Walker's feisty activism was inspirational.

"I remember her telling me to speak up, because I was pretty shy, and probably still am. You're not going to fashion any priorities by being quiet," he said.

Even so, Walker remembers being surprised she didn't have to fight more in Juneau, particularly as a black woman during the height of the civil rights movement. Walker said she is descended from slaves owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and several generations of her family on her mother's side have "Lee" in their name as a result. She changed her name from Rosa Lee to Rosalee while in high school.

"In Baltimore, the line was drawn and you didn't cross that line. (When I got to Juneau) I was waiting for someone to nudge me, and it never happened. Everybody was just as nice as can be," she said.

Perhaps because Juneau and Alaska are so far removed from the Lower 48, or perhaps because of the town's community atmosphere, Walker said she never felt discriminated against.

She remembers her car breaking down on North Douglas Highway, and one car passed her without stopping to help before someone came to her aid.

"By the time I got to town, somehow everybody knew what was going on. They knew that I had broken down, they knew that someone had passed me, and they knew who it was," she said.

But Walker said the community feeling didn't keep people from becoming inflamed over local issues, such as the fight over whether to close Capital School.

"There are people now who are neighbors, but they don't speak because of the Capital School issue," she said.

Another fight was the controversy over whether to name the bridge to Douglas Island the "Juneau-Douglas Bridge" or the "Douglas-Juneau Bridge."

Walker expects to leave Juneau sometime in January, though she's not looking forward to it.

"I've really, really enjoyed the people here," she said.

• Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.

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