ANCHORAGE - At a time in his life when many men relax in a rocking chair, communications pioneer Augie Hiebert has become a Pied Piper of the future of broadcast education in public schools.
"You ought to see what those 11- and 12-year-old kids can do," said Hiebert, who travels to Mirror Lake Middle School about once a month, with his daughter, Cathy, to watch the students produce news programs for their peers. His entourage may include anyone else in the community he believes can contribute to the program.
Whether the students eventually become media professionals or not is not the point, Hiebert said. What's important is their advisor, longtime Mirror Lake teacher Emily Blahous, is teaching them accountability, responsibility, teamwork and courtesy, he said.
Hiebert, a pillar in the Alaska communications industry, marked his 89th birthday on Dec. 4. While officially retired since 1997, when he sold Northern Television, his interest in broadcast communications has never waned.
Hiebert was just 15 back in 1932, when he built and licensed his first ham radio in Bend, Ore. He sees a little of himself today in young people like Andrew George, now a student at Chugiak High School, who was part of the Mirror Lake program.
"He's a technical genius," Hiebert said of George. "He's just a natural. He can fix anything electronically."
Hiebert's enthusiasm for the Mirror Lakes communications program is echoed by the school's enthusiasm for him.
"His mentorship for us is giving us a network of people that we can draw from, whenever we need to know something," Blahous said. "He has been an enormous, unbelievable help.
"Every turn is something positive that happens because of Augie," she said. "Quite frankly the boys and girls just love him. He thinks of the students as his kids. He doesn't let them drop after they leave the school if they have an interest (in media)."
When school officials expressed an interest in getting a Federal Communications Commission license for their school station, Hiebert brought in people from the FCC licensing bureau in Washington, D.C.
"We never know who is going to walk in (with Hiebert). He's proud of it and he warms our hearts and I think we warm his," Blahous said.
Indeed, Hiebert's eyes light up and his smile quickens when talking about the Mirror Lake program, where students produce five-minute video news broadcasts, five days a week, to be aired on closed circuit television to fellow students less than an hour later.
Beyond teaching students accountability and responsibility, Hiebert sees the program as a source of the next generation of Alaska broadcasters and broadcast engineers. After all, Hiebert said, one of the toughest jobs in broadcasting is finding good help.
"I look at television as a window on the world, to entertain and inspire people to do things," Hiebert said. His own favorite programs include the CBS News magazine "60 Minutes" and features on the History Channel. For news reports, he prefers KTVA Channel 11, which he built in 1953 as Alaska's first television station.
How Hiebert came to build that station is a story in itself.
Born on Dec. 4, 1916, in eastern Washington state to Peter and Josephine Hiebert, he grew up helping every way he could on the family orchard, which produced apples, cherries, apricots and peaches. By age 8 he drove a tractor that pulled the spraying machine used to control worm infestation in the orchard. He also irrigated the orchard, thinned the apples to promote growth and propped up fruit-laden tree limbs to prevent breakage.
During the Great Depression, Hiebert's teenage years were filled with playing basketball, baseball and getting his ham radio license.
When a small loan at the bank could not be paid, the bank foreclosed on the 160-acre farm and the house where young Augie was born and raised. Yet by 1932, the teenager acquired his ham radio license and his curiosity about electronics was piqued.
"I was just interested in electronics," he said. "It was early in radio days, and I was interested in building things."