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Robert DeArmond: Local journalist, historian dies

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Robert Neil DeArmond had a lifelong dedication to documenting Alaska's people and workings. Even after his death, the success of this goal and the passion behind his work will be evident to future generations.

DeArmond died Friday at his residence at the Sitka Pioneers Home. In his 99 years, he penned more than a dozen books and countless newspaper columns and he made sure he shared his homeland with the world. As his son, William, put it, "He was a self-taught historian."

DeArmond was born in Sitka on July 29, 1911. He attended school in Sitka and Tacoma, Wash., graduating from Stadium High School in 1930.

DeArmond's writing career started shortly afterward, with his first newspaper job as a reporter for the Strollers Weekly in Juneau. After the paper was sold and his job eliminated, DeArmond took a trip by rowboat from Sitka to Tacoma, a voyage that would later become the basis for his book "A Voyage in a Dory: From Sitka to Tacoma by Oars, Sail, and Tow Rope."

He eventually made his way to Eugene, Ore., where he attended a year of college at the University of Oregon before returning to Sitka to work in the fishing industry.

DeArmond married Dale Burlison in 1935 and had a son, William, in 1938, and a daughter, Jane, in 1940.

DeArmond became a pioneer in Alaska during this time. He was part of the first crew that went from Sitka to Chichagof Island in 1938 to build a cold storage plant and found the town of Pelican. While there, he was a storekeeper, bookkeeper and postmaster.

"He and a group from Sitka started it from scratch," his son said. "They needed it out there."

But DeArmond's vigor for writing kept calling. He moved his family to Ketchikan in 1944 to report for the Alaska Fishing News, which would later become the Ketchikan Daily News. He also reported for the Juneau Empire and other newspapers, covering the Territorial Legislature and other stories.

His newspaper work helped give an outlet to both his love of writing and history, leading into more columns and books.

"He devoted his life to Alaska history," William said.

Many of these works are archived by the Juneau-Douglas City Museum's Digital Bob project.

"Digital Bob was created to recognize the extensive achievements of one of Alaska's premier historians and to make some of his writings more accessible to the public," said Addison Field, curator of collections and exhibits at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. "His contribution to the written history of the region is immeasurable. The Digital Bob site is composed primarily of three newspaper columns printed between 1978 and 1991. The Digital Bob site provides everyone with access to some of the wealth of knowledge that Mr. DeArmond left for us."

"It's safe to say he devoted most of his life to researching Alaska, not just political history but how people lived," said William. He said his father loved writing about all aspects of Alaska life, including but not limited to, fishing, mining, wildlife, fur trade, timber and pelagic issues.

His books chronicled histories and notable moments of many areas, including Juneau's founding.

William said his father drew upon the knowledge he gained from life and research for his historical aspirations. As for his education, he stood by the schooling he had and did not seek additional academic recognition. William said his father never accepted any honorary degrees, even though he was offered some.

DeArmond also worked in research for the Alaska Historical Library, for which he became a strong supporter and contributor.

His journalistic endeavors continued as he co-founded Alaska Northwest Publishing Co. and purchased and edited the Alaska Sportsman, now the Alaska magazine. He also edited the Alaska Journal and served on the Alaska Historical Society board of directors and was a member of the Alaska Historical Commission.

Hs son said there will be no memorial service, in accordance with his father's wishes.

DeArmond was a long time contributor and friend to the Alaska State Library Historical Collections. At his request, a fund has been created in his name to benefit these collections. Donations may be sent to Friends of the Alaska State Museum at 395 Whittier St. Juneau, AK 99801. Please specify the Robert DeArmond Fund.

The Digital Bob website can be found at http://bit.ly/he2p0L.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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