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Willard Eugene Dunham

October 28, 1930 March 1, 2019
Willard Eugene Dunham
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Obituary for Willard Eugene Dunham

Willard Eugene Dunham, 75-year resident of Seward, Alaska passed on March 1, 2019 at Alaska Regional Hospital Anchorage, at age 88. He was born in Billings, Montana on October 28, 1930 to Violet Lenore Dunham. His father, whom he was named after, died five months before his birth. He came to Alaska in 1943, at age 12, leaving Montana aboard a troop train to Seattle, then flew hops aboard Alaska Star (a precursor of Alaska Airlines) first to Peace River, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Fairbanks and on to Anchorage. They only flew daytimes because of the wartime blackouts. There was no civilian pilot available the day he flew to Seward so a military pilot was enlisted and advised to “follow the railroad tracks and you'll find it." In his youth, Willard climbed Kenai Peninsula peaks from Manitoba to Alice. He was an avid fisherman and hunter. In later life, with coffers full enough to do it, he loved to travel the world, even Russia before the breakup of the USSR.

Willard graduated high school in 1948 and went to work for the Alaska Railroad. In 1951 he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Fairbanks as a pharmacy assistant at Eielson Air Force Base. Soon his master sergeant announced that Pvt. Dunham would be a medic. Claiming no medical experience whatsoever, except knowing CPR, he was dubious. The sergeant handed him a large medical text he had personally carried through Europe from D-day to victory. “This will tell you everything you need to know,” the new medic was assured. That Thanksgiving Willard wired his girlfriend, Beverly Abrahamsen “I won $2,000 in a craps game let’s get married.” She quit college and joined him. They were married Christmas Eve 1951.

In 1953, with Willard out of the Army, the new parents returned to Seward where he worked the docks until the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and tsunamis destroyed them. By then he had been working part-time for the Department of Labor (DOL) for two years. The disaster aftermath made him a full-time DOL employee. From then and beyond retirement, he racked up an impressive record of community service. Including the priority of job-creation. Every new job was considered a victory. In 1969 When the University proposed moving its marine science labs from southeastern, Dunham worked with Dr. Donald Hood to locate them in Seward.The quake had seriously damaged the family home, resulting in a mortgage much higher than it could have sold for but the Dunhams had never considered leaving Seward anyway,

In the late 1960’s the state was seeking a site for its proposed vocational school. When then governor Keith Miller was on a visit to Seward, Willard took the opportunity to lobby him. He went about this by “kidnapping” the governor, whisking him away from his trooper who was not pleased. They toured available properties including s a city block. “I can get you this for $5” Dunham said. Later that fall, during a hunting trip, he received a message, “Be in Juneau tomorrow the governor wants you.” Because the kids had four caribou down, the trip was delayed by one day. In Juneau he learned the governor had chosen Seward, most welcome news. The school, AVTEC, has served thousands of students in the last 50 years. (As an aside, the Governor Miller died at hospice the day after Willard’s passing).

Another Seward boost has been the Alaska SeaLife Center. Mr. Dunham worked with the University of Alaska in efforts to build a larger marine science facility The project made it through the regents and legislature but was red-lined at budget time. Not discouraged, a committee headed by Dunham and other supporters organized, determined to continue its efforts, When the oil spill occurred, a funding opportunity arose. Governor Hickel was given a “show and tell” of the project. In his familiar style, Hickel declared, “Let’s do it.” The community itself raised over $1 million. That and other private donations showed public support. With the governor and a legislative majority backing it, civil and criminal settlement money enabled construction to start. The center celebrates its first 20 years this summer. Many other projects Willard headed or participated in include Spring Creek Correctional Center, and the building of the new Seward Library/Museum.

Willard and Bev had four children, WED the 3rd (Gene), Delbert Kevin, Robin Neil, and Meggin Marie. The Dunham parents warmed the bleachers at every game their kids played, and the plays, concerts, and other activities. The Dunham kitchen was open to dozens of kids of all ages. Three of their grandkids lived with them while in high school. Those were hectic, noisy times. They had several business interests, namely the Seward Phoenix Log newspaper they founded and operated for 18. years with kids helping out, though grudgingly. Mr. Dunham served six years on Seward City Council and two as mayor. His volunteer resume is long and diverse: president of the Seward General hospital board, Fish & Game Advisory groups, longshore union boards, Chamber of Commerce President twice, and nearly every city task force, commission, and committee over a 60-year period.

Mr. Dunham was preceded in death by his parents, infant son Robin Neil, daughter Meggin Clancy, and step-sister Jacquelyn Robbins. He is survived by Beverly, his wife of 67 years; sons Gene and Kevin (Carmen); son-in-law Kai Clancy and neighbor Suze Urbach, who Willard called “the next best thing to being another daughter. Ggrandchildren: Lara Schultz (Eric), Rian, Rory; Aaron & Sean; Curtis (Connie), Kara (Chad), Eric (April); and Dawson Clancy. Finally, great-grandkids: Cole, Alyssa, Alanna, Noah, Aliyah, Byron, Maison, Colton, Haley, Roman, Saxon, Ashley, Luke, Jaxon, Tucker, Bay Lee, Emma Lee, Amber Lee, Rian Junior, Tristan, and Ashley Landess.

Memorial services were held March 9 at the Alaska SeaLife Center with the reception catering by the AVTEC culinary department. The family thanks them and all the folks who provided meals, sent messages of condolence and visited in the days before and after Willard’s passing.


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