Rosalee Walker: An activist to the end

Former Juneau Assembly member remembered for her life of public service

Posted: Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Most people would take it easy after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure and hospitalized with pneumonia, but Rosalee Walker wasn't the type.

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Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire File

Walker, 79, was too weak to walk in her final months, but chose to volunteer with Barack Obama's campaign alongside legions of young activists in Maryland.

"She was in a wheelchair at that point, but she just had to be a part of it," said Walker's daughter Karen Smith, of Baltimore.

Walker died Thanksgiving Day, and the many Alaskans whose lives she touched have gushed praise about her life accomplishments. She lived in Douglas and Juneau from 1967 until 2004, when her health problems forced her to leave her adopted home of four decades for Baltimore, where she grew up and where her two daughters still live.

Smith and many locals described her as proud, caring, feisty, outspoken, intelligent and controversial.

Those qualities drove her to public service in many forms, including becoming a teacher, volunteering at the Glory Hole and serving on the Juneau Assembly for three terms.

"I call those beef stew people - they're in everything but beef stew," Smith said.

But those attributes didn't always serve her well. In a 2001 interview, she described a lesson she learned from bungling a lunch counter sit-in organized by her college and a young Martin Luther King Jr. to protest discrimination in the 1950s.

"As I sat there, regular customers began to come in. This white man was angry and reached over me and picked up the ketchup bottle, took the top off and dumped it on my hair. Then he put it back," she said. "I just picked it up instinctively and hit him up side of the head."

Her fellow protesters dragged her out and locked her in a bus. Afterwards, she said, "I felt bad because I had violated the rules. I was called back to the college president's office, and the professor and Martin Luther was there. There was no anger, but they really let me know what was on their mind."

The way she confronted people changed after that incident but was still on display along with her wit in Alaska public policy debates for years, be it as a member of a commission, elected official or in letters to the editor.

Walker had said that she never felt discriminated against after coming to Alaska. The Native community included her, a black woman with no Native American ancestry, in their functions and named her a life member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Through her longtime association with the organization, she was a strong advocate of subsistence rights and education issues.

Longtime sisterhood leader Marie Olson, a friend since the 1970s, didn't know how Walker first became involved in the sisterhood.

"When I came to a meeting, there she was. Everybody knew Rosalee anyway," Olson said. "Someone suggested, 'She's here, let's make her a member.' (We) took a vote, she was a member. She knew a lot of us. It was like she'd always been there."

For Karen Smith, Walker's daughter in Baltimore, her mother's death has been part reflection and part discovery.

"She was my mother, but there were parts I didn't know. She was very high powered. And you don't think about your mother or father or children as being exceptional. They're just, 'Mom.'"

Going through her "trunks full of awards" and reading e-mails from afar forced Smith to see her what many others already saw.

"Looking at that, I realized the magnitude of her life. She touched so many people."

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