Personal stories that shaped 2000

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

Six Juneau residents will welcome the New Year with open arms tonight as a result of life-changing events they experienced during the year 2000.

Samuel Lee and Robert Harolson hold onto the promise of new careers.

Sara and Peter Hagen find themselves trying to keep pace with an active, new adopted daughter in their one-room A-frame.

Julie Graves fell to earth in a paragliding accident, but rose again, thanks to modern surgical reconstruction.

Waiter Alfred Votion, who felt he was marking time in life, will soon move into a new home.

Here are their stories.


Changes coming: Samuel Lee is studying computer programming and is expecting his first child in March.


After cooking for 26 years, Samuel Lee is about to embark on a new career. He is also about to become a father for the first time.

Lee started out washing pots and pans in New York City. He became a certified chef at Erwin Vocational Tech in Tampa, Fla., and developed his own eclectic style of cuisine. But along the way he hurt his knee playing football for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The knee was getting worse, and Lee, now 40, grew depressed and pessimistic. What could he do but cook?

He worked his way to Alaska cooking on a 54-foot Bellingham, Wash., seiner. When he found himself living paycheck-to-paycheck in Ketchikan, he felt life stretching out ahead of him, all downhill.

"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I never was down and out and broke until I got to Alaska. My knee was giving out. But sitting around kills me," Lee said.

Then he moved to Juneau in January of 1999, began cooking at The Bayou, met and married Katrina Tibbles, and recently saw his baby on an ultrasound.

"It was scary but awesome," he said, of the child due March 4.

Helping out in the kitchen at The Glory Hole, Lee learned about adult night school. Now he's deep into computer programming and the future looks bright. "I have goals for two years from now."

"I think I have done a 100 percent turnaround this year," Lee said. "Now I know there are other avenues for me. And I know that it's not easy but it's not impossible, either."

A self-described steel bum who lives in one room surrounded by tools and "likes to raise a little hell on the side," Robert "Harry" Harolson gets most of his meals at The Glory Hole. While having dinner there Oct. 21, he was given information about a job fair at the University of Alaska Southeast and went out to investigate. As a result, "Harry is all smiles these days," said Glory Hole executive director Joan Decker, who calls both Lee and Harolson "her success stories."

Harolson will be 50 in April. He has worked as a welder, in the steel trade and with heavy equipment all his life. There's nothing he likes better than fabricating steel in a snow storm at a remote site. "Put me out in the snow up to my waist and I'm having a good time," he said.

"But the technology has progressed and I haven't," he said. "I have about 15 years left and I don't want to be on the bottom of the heap. I want to be the boss."

After a man-to-man chat with an associate dean, Harolson discovered he can probably get grants to pay for two years of college. So Harolson is going back to school to study diesel mechanics and welding.

"The two trades go together, and I'll be able to set up my own rig and take contracts in the Bush. I don't like big towns and I don't like warm temperatures. I like walking down the street and knowing personally 90 percent of the people I see. I don't like working indoors. Field fabrication suits me better than shop work."

Harolson figures he'll finish his re-education in two and a quarter years and be ready to catch the last two-thirds of the proposed natural gas pipeline and then work on the trans-Alaska power line he hears rumors of. "I'm applying for scholarships and grants. I'm already approved on a Stafford Loan for books and fees and tuition for spring and summer," he said.

"Things are getting a bit better. I have a good game plan and the means to do it, and that kind of brightens my day. The whole deal is, just get off your dead ass and do it," Harolson said to the stagnating world at large.

"Harry has inspired a lot of other people with his progress," Decker added.


Overcoming a disaster: Sara and Peter Hagen adopted Annie, 13 months old, from China three months ago. They are also rebuilding from a house fire.


Sara Hagen points out the birthplace of her daughter Annie, almost 14 months, on a map Annie has chewed. Annie was born in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, in South China. Her middle name, Yu Si, or "Jade Thinking," was given to her because her orphanage nanny considered her an intellectual and curious baby.

Juneau's population includes about a dozen adopted Chinese children now, Sara and her husband Peter estimate. Peter is a biologist with Fish and Game. Sara works for the bookstore at the University of Alaska Southeast. The two, in their 40s, have been married for more than a decade.

China's one-child policy means many families prefer boys. Annie was abandoned - as a day-old baby - near an orphanage. The Hagens found her through Chinese Children Adoption International, a licensed child-placement agency in Englewood, Colo. When their house near Amalga Harbor burned to the ground in August 1999, they were thankful all the paperwork for the adoption had just gone into the mail; and thankful their "homestead" A-frame still stood.

The Hagens met Annie when she was 10 months old, at the end of August. With 10 other couples screened by the adoption agency, they flew to Hong Kong and then to Zhanjiang. The orphanage where all met their babies - some couples, their second - was full of 200 girls.

"We waited until late in life to have kids and then found we couldn't have our own," Sara said. "We talked but Pete, the scientist, was a little bit afraid of adoption."

"My turning point was seeing some of the other Chinese children in town," Peter said. "That swung me over. They are just so beautiful, darling and vibrant."

Now, Peter says, laughing as Annie grabs for a photo album and then tugs on a silk emperor's hat, "free will is no longer what it used to be. I had no idea falling in love again would be so rich."

Now Peter has no second thoughts. "If you're thinking about it, don't hesitate," he says.

Smiling broadly as her hair is pulled, Sara adds that the "3 a.m. squawk" is a little hard to take, but "the journey is just beginning." They can hardly wait to introduce Annie to the lefsa and lutefisk of their Norwegian heritage.


Healing: Julie Graves talks about how doctors put her shattered spinal column back together after a parasailing accident last summer.


When people hear about Julie Graves' accident, their backs start hurting in sympathy.

Graves suffered a a serious back injury when she fell 50 feet to the ground after her paraglider stalled in flight Sept. 21 near Floyd Dryden Middle School. She was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for treatment. They found part of her backbone had virtually disintegrated.

As she lay stunned on the ground, "I thanked God I could move my feet and my hands, and thought I just had the wind knocked out of me. I assumed I could walk away. But they took X-rays and that wasn't the case," Graves, 42, said.

Graves has been a bookkeeper for 10 years with the family business, Valley Lumber. She was back at her desk earlier this month, wearing an upper body brace.

"Because there was no nerve damage, that's why I am walking today," she said. Using methods not available 15 years ago, Harborview surgeons stiffened her spine with metal bars on either side. In a second surgery, they put a titanium mesh cage around the bits of bone left and grated in cadaver bone. The two should grow together. "I am so thankful abut the technology," she said.

"Three vertebrae are growing into one unit, but it should not affect my mobility at all," said Graves, a competitive bicycle rider who plans to compete again in the Kluane relay race in the Yukon Territory in June.

She spent two weeks in the hospital and another two weeks recovering at her mother's house.

"Life has slowed down for me since September, but I am expected to have 100 percent recovery. So hopefully it won't change too much," she said.

"I still tire very quickly, and I can't tie my shoes, but I am back to exercising on an indoor bike and walking," she said.

"I am thankful to all for the prayers that went up for me. My room was filled with flowers; the (Juneau) community was awesome," Graves said. "Any surgery is hard, and calls and letters really helped me when I was feeling yucky."


Getting a home: Alfred Votion and his son Shawn, 10, will move into a house provided by Habitat for Humanity this March.


Like a proud papa, Alfred Votion is keeping a scrapbook of the progress of the latest addition to his family.

But this isn't a baby; it's a Habitat for Humanity house, the first First Ladies Build house in Juneau. With Alaska's First Lady Susan Knowles and others doing the labor, the house began going up earlier this year in the Mendenhall Valley near the trailer where Votion and his son have been living.

One photo in Votion's scrapbook shows him nailing the last piece of plywood on the roof. One of the requirements of the Habitat project is that he put in 500 hours of sweat equity.

"I've been working non-stop Saturday and Sunday since we started. I have met a lot of new people and I am having fun doing it," Votion said.

"I have come to realize that building a house takes a lot of work, but we have excellent crew leaders. They make sure every board is where it's supposed to be, every nail; it's going to be well built," he said.

Votion's son, Shawn, 10, is very excited that he will move into his new home about March. "His friends come by, and he shows them where his room will be. He has already picked out the color - sky blue," Votion said.

Votion has lived in Juneau for 16 years, and has been a waiter at Valentine's Coffee House & Pizzeria for about four. He's divorced, and part of his dream for 2001 is getting custody of Shawn's half brother, Vernon, 12, who is now in a foster home in Colorado.

"I wanted him to come with us three years ago (when the divorce went through), but we weren't able to house him in the trailer. The Habitat house is a miracle; everything is coming together for the better," Votion said. "We can be a family again."

When he first learned he had been awarded residency in the three-bedroom house at the end of May, it was very exciting, Votion said.

"I didn't want to check my mail box or my answering machine because I was competing with about 50 applicants and I was afraid it would be bad news," he said.

It was good news and since then Votion has learned all sorts of new terminology, including cat's claw (a nail remover), drip edge and fascia board. He's had the experience of working on the roof with a harness securing him.

"The ladies are awesome. We get along so well. Even when the weather is really bad, they're out there," he said.

"Me and my boy were just making do. Now we have a great future," said Votion. And now he daydreams of helping out on the Habitat house when it rises on the lot next door making lunch for the volunteers in his brand new kitchen.

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