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A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling


Of War, Teachers, and the Tide of Change


The coming of World War II split the past of Nome from the future like an axe blow on a seasoned block of wood. The graduating class of 1940, three girls – one of them half-native – and six boys, matriculated into the excitement of the world crisis, where two of the boys were to play heroic parts, Bob Scott in the South Pacific, and Fred Bockman in the campaign in Italy.

Soon after the declaration of war with Japan on December 7, 1941, soldiers arrived at Nome, and major construction of an army base was started in 1942.1 Temporary barracks were erected in scattered areas to house the troops until the permanent quarters were completed. The local citizens participated with enthusiasm in the social entertainments arranged for their military guests, and lured by the novelty of stirring change and economic opportunity, the natives of the surrounding villages began a migration into Nome that has never entirely stopped. The war, in truth, revitalized the town.2

However, the Commissioner of Education, in his 1944 report, noted that war shortages were detrimental to building programs, limiting activity to minor repairs. Increased enrollments in large cities taxed facilities to the utmost, and the use of gyms by the military prevented use of them by some students.3 There were also the negative factors of reductions in enrollment and attendance, especially in the secondary schools, caused by work opportunity, induction and enlistment of older boys, and employment of both parents outside the home.4 Also, the maintenance and replacement of school staffs with qualified personnel became increasingly difficult, as the competition of business and government agencies for teachers and school employees at higher pay affected acutely the instruction in mathematics, science, business, the arts, and physical education;5 and most of the young male teachers eventually went into the military services.

The program of studies was oriented by the Department of Education toward military applications in math and science. International relations and domestic problems such as inflation, rationing, labor relations, production and conservation of food were emphasized in English and social studies classes.6 Participation by teachers in the war effort in civil defense, the Alaska Territorial Guard, Red Cross, United Service Organizations, bond drives, and first aid instruction made great demands on the energy and ability of school personnel.7

Summing it up in his report of 1946, the Commissioner said:

The schools of Alaska during the period covered by the report have made progress although activities have been restricted and made less affective by conditions resulting from the war. The school, no less than industry and business, has felt the impact of the national social and economic situation. A spirit of unrest which seems to have permeated our whole social structure was evident in the schools, creating personal and pupil problems which have not been encountered in former years. Unsatisfactory housing facilities, scarcity of materials, uncertain transportation, spiraling prices and a feeling of uncertainty about the future have been contributing factors in creating these problems…With the countless disturbances in all human affairs, the maintenance of properly conducted schools has been an accomplishment truly worthy of note.8

Becoming the most distinguished alumnus of the Nome Public Schools, General James H. Doolittle, who had spent his first six school years in Nome, led his Army Air Corps bombers in an aerial assault on Tokyo, April 18, 1942, from an aircraft carrier. Three of his schoolmates, among those still living in Nome, who recalled memories of young Jimmy Doolittle, were Guy Boyd, Cappy McDougal, and Bud Lehmann.9

Good schools are a compound of several tangible and many intangible ingredients, but the most important of these has always been effective teachers. While teacher replacement has been characteristically high in the Nome schools, two great teachers, Emma Stubjaer Cameron and Olaf Halverson, are among those whose long contributions to the community life have been immeasurable in human values. At a farewell dinner in honor of Mrs. Cameron and her husband, Bill, in 1966, Carrie McLain made the following remarks:

It was in the 1936-37 school year when the Nome school board, consisting of Slim Rydeen, Mrs. Effie Baldwin, and myself, in going over a number of teachers’ applications submitted by the Huff Agency in Montana, decided on Emma Stubjaer’s application for the Nome high school. We never affectionately called, for over a period of twenty-five years, to become a beloved and respected teacher and a valuable asset to the community.

It was not long before she sized up the needs of the school and that first winter had the courage to try out a Nome high school band, giving those raw recruits their first appreciation of band music.

Later, she developed the high school glee club amongst the girls, and for years parents and Nome audiences were delighted with the music from these young voices.

Outside of school hours Stuby gave of her time in teaching commercial subjects to adults who were interested in learning.

We all know her application to civic and church activities and what they have meant to our community down through the years.

It was really an expression of sincere appreciation when Slim Rydeen wrote me a little over a year ago, "We were a very lucky school board when we secured Stuby’s services." I agreed, for Stuby was and is a dedicated teacher with a pride and interest in her pupils and a devotion to her work.

To her colleagues, Mrs. Cameron’s talents and energy seemed boundless. She taught French and Latin, sponsoring a Junior Classical League whose annual banquets were resplendent affairs in the style of Roman antiquity, and the official language was Latin, often spoken with a distinguishable Eskimo accent. "Stuby" ran the library, where she actively assisted students in selecting books, advised on the preparation of reports, and trained her own student librarians. After school she directed student casts in the many plays she produced. Stubby was a professional teacher in the collective sense, as well; a continuous supporter of the broad aims of education through active membership in the National Education Association and its state and local affiliates, the Alaska Education Association and the Nome Education Association. Emma Cameron’s standards of scholarship were directed toward the pursuit of excellence, in which she was indefatiguable in her efforts to encourage the individual student to strive toward his potential. Her fire of dedication burned unwaveringly, and she touched its kindling power to the lamp of knowledge that each growing child holds invisibly for an able teacher to fill and light.

Elementary and junior high teachers with tenures exceeding ten years, in the nineteen forties and fifties, were Helen Bockman, Omie McCarthy, Lennie May Nerland, Helen Dunbar, Ann Gillis, and Mary Ellen Walsh. High school teachers of this distinguished group included William Henry Ullrich, who received his early education in the Nome schools, Emma Cameron, Olaf Halverson, and Superintendent William L. Angell.10 The long service of these able teachers provided a center of stability beneficial to the hundreds of children to whom they became identified with the life of the school and were known familiarly by whole families of students.

As the school enrollments increased, teachers were called upon to do yeoman service in clerical assistance to the administrator.11 Superintendent A. A. Ryan, whose complaints were couched in direct reportive terms, mentioned in his 1940 Report to the Commissioner of Education that the superintendent did all his own clerical work. The total enrollment that year was 161. Eighteen years later, in the 1958 school year, when the school board had been increased to five members and the student enrollment had burgeoned to 700, Superintendent William Angell was given the assistance of the first office clerk to be employed in the schools.12 The absence of office help undoubtedly was a source of inefficiency not only to the superintendent, but to the elementary and high school principals, all of whom doubled as teachers of at least one class daily in a tightly structured school economy.13

Soon after the formation of the Territorial Department of Education, Commissioner L. D. Henderson devised an examination for the certification of teachers, and toured the schools of northwestern Alaska to make a personal inspection and to examine applicants. He gave two examinations for teacher certification at Nome, in August 1917.14

He reported on salaries of teachers:

The salaries now being paid to Alaska school teachers compare favorably with those in the majority of the States. If consideration is given to the expense of reaching Alaska, the salaries are inferior. It is not to be expected that any reduction in present salary schedules can be made.15

Teachers’ salaries, other than those of the superintendents and principals, between 1918-19 and 1938-39, for the Nome schools elementary staff ranged from a minimum average of $1440 to a maximum average of $1698.75; and for high school teachers the figures ranged between $1665 and $1800, representing a drop, rather than an increase, of $101.25 between 1921 and 1939. In the same overall period, administrators were paid from $2025 to $2900.16 These salary scales had evolved from the beginning of the local school system, with adjustments to conform to approved budget amounts over the years, and had become stabilized to an essential degree, although the superintendent’s salary was negotiated.

In the early years of his administration, Commissioner Henderson had proposed a plan of minimum salaries for teachers by geographic areas, taking into account the widely varying costs of living, travel expense, and remoteness. In his 1920 report, the Commissioner offered a minimum salary schedule and expressed hope that local school boards would adopt it.17 The seed bore fruit in the 1939 session of the Legislature, when an important basic school support act was passed to provide equalized minimum salaries, by judicial divisions, for all classroom teachers. Commissioner of Education, Anthony E. Karnes commented on the law:

This Act provides for the minimum salaries of qualified teachers of $1800 per year in the First Division, $1980 in the Third Division, and $2100 in the Second and Fourth Divisions. While nearly all Territorial teachers benefitted by the passage of this Act, its weakness lies in the fact that new and inexperienced teachers, with only three years’ preparation, receive as much as many teachers who hold the A. B. degree or even the M. A. degree, and have had several years of experience.18

However, the act was a foundation for a pragmatic and equitable system of salary adjustments that proved to be fruitful in elevating professional standards of education in years to come. The minimum salary scale of $2100 per annum for both high school and grade school teachers of the Second Judicial Division increased the salaries of the Nome school faculty by approximately $400 and $500 in the high school and grade school, respectively.19

A series of education bills in successive legislatures were supported by able commissioners of education, James C. Ryan and Don M. Dafoe, in the two decades before statehood, under a strong territorial board of education whose members, under a reorganization act of 1933, were appointed by the Governor of the Territory for overlapping terms of five years. Besides the efficient territorial department, a vigorous revival of the Alaska Education Association in the war years added the strength of an increasingly powerful teacher organization to the forces working for higher educational standards in Alaska.20

Improvements in the salary schedules provided minimum and maximum salaries, supported chiefly by the Territory, for teachers and administrators, with annual increments according to qualification. These schedules, together with annual sick leave provisions, and an actuarally sound retirement system, were developed and lobbied by the Alaska Education Association with a high degree of success. By 1958, the average annual salaries of Nome teachers had risen to $7077.22. For many years the Nome teachers enrolled with 100% membership in their local and territorial associations, as well as the parent National Education Association, taking an active part in the activities of these organizations, as they have continued to do with constructive effect following statehood.

Commissioner Karnes pointed out, in 1944, that "graduation from an approved university or college is the minimum requirement of training for high school teachers in Alaska, and at least three years of work in an accredited college or normal school is required for elementary teachers."21 In Nome, from 1919 to 1930, the ratio of college graduates on the faculty to normal school graduates was two to three, or 40% college graduates to 60% normal school graduates. By 1937, 87.5% of a faculty of 16 teachers held a college degree, and 12.5% were normal school graduates or did not hold a college degree,22 compared with a territorial average for other incorporated districts, in 1958, at the close of the territorial period, of slightly over 87% of degree holders.23 Although supporting statistics are not at hand, it is probable that the Nome schools surpassed the territorial percentage in this respect in 1958, as the trend had continued upward. The fact remains that the Nome teaching staff anteceded the highest average degree of qualification attained by the sum total of territorial teachers by a period of five years. The difficulty has not been in employing well qualified teachers, but in keeping them through a stabilizing length of tenure. Associated with budgetary inadequacy, the erratic and excessive turnover of teachers is undoubtedly a cause of lowered achievement standards by the students.

With the amalgamation of the city schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school in 1946-47, and the following year, the student population rose from its 1944-45 figure of 163 total enrollment to 337 in 1948-49, more than doubling in a space of five years. By 1957-58, the school enrollment had again more than doubled to a figure of 700. The new school budgets spiraled from the $36,981.82 sum of 1945-46, (city share, $8,855.82) to an astronomical amount of $256,635 (city share, $80,763.74) in 1957-58. To a board and council accustomed to thinking conservatively in educational costs and reacting with shock to the 1945-46 city share of under $9000,24 the developing situation was almost enough to induce a trauma. However, the firm guiding hand of Superintendent William L. Angell, from 1945 to statehood in 1959,25 eased the local financing through federal assistance programs, and provided the administrative strength that times of change require.

As the enrollment skyrocketed, more space for classes became a pressing necessity. Commissioner Karnes had stated in his 1940 report that "ordinarily, cities are supposed to construct their own school buildings, but the last three legislatures have set a precedent in assisting cities in the construction of their school buildings…" In 1953, with a grant from the Legislature, a new elementary addition to the main school was built. The home economics and shop classes were moved into renovated army surplus yak-huts on adjoining grounds.26

Sanitary conditions in the Nome schools had never been standard. The city existed in sewage and garbage disposal conditions that had prevailed in the gold-rush era. Water purchased from a tank trucking firm was pumped into water storage tanks in the residences and public and business buildings, and reordered periodically. Water drains from sinks and tubs emptied onto the ground to run off and evaporate, a system that would have caused endemic disease in a warmer climate. Toilets were indoor "honey buckets," usually vented, with an outside "port" for the scavenger’s contracted collections.27 Shortly before statehood, the territorial health officer warned the city that if more than 500 children were housed in the city school building, sewer and water facilities meeting standard health requirements would have to be installed.28 Although the standaards were never met by the school in the territorial era ending in 1958, the health department cancelled any further additions to the main building after 1962, pending the correction of sanitary conditions.29

In spite of the negative aspects of the school facilities, a faithful corps of teachers remained to perform cadre duty with those newly coming in. One who came to stay, in 1946, Mr. Olaf Halverson, made his mark as a great teacher of the Nome youth. Mr. Halverson, a graduate of St. Olaf’s College, in Northfield, Minnesota, came to Alaska in 1935, as a surveyor with the Matanuska Valley colony project. He had formerly been a teacher and was proud of his record of having taught twenty years without a day’s absence or tardiness. Of Norwegian stock, Olaf was a master skier. He once astonished his students by chartering a ski plane to take him into the coastal range north of Nome, where he mounted his skiis and made a swift return down the valley slopes to town. Of a pleasant disposition, and radiating good will in his classroom, he made his mathematics, science, mechanical drawing, and shop classes popular. On Sundays, Mr. Halverson taught church school to a roomful of small children at the Swedish Evangelical Church. Among his teaching colleagues, Olaf collected the education association dues, which were customarily one hundred percent, and he wrote articles for The Alaska Teacher, as well, making him well known among the teachers of the Territory. He acted as high school principal in various years, and spent numerous hours assisting the clerkless superintendent with fiscal reports.30

As school budget money was in short supply, Mr. Halverson underwrote a school yearbook, Polaris, which he served as advisor for the four years from 1947 to 1950. The Polaris is an excellent book of quality pictures, sound territorial and school history, and a valuable resource of information concerning the school years of publication. One of Mr. Halverson’s students, Loretta Snyder, a girl of native blood and valedictorian of the Class of 1948, concluded her graduation address, which was printed in the Polaris, with these words of pragmatic philosophy that characterized the attitudes of her teacher:

The problems of tomorrow are for us to face. Perhaps none of us will become famous statesmen, but by taking advantage of the training provided by our educational system and the further training some of us hope to acquire as we go on to school, we can practice our teachings and become effective citizens of our democracy so that it might live.

Loretta became a medical doctor.

When Mr. Halverson died in 1962, he left a bequest of $100 a year to be awarded as a scholarship to a worthy Nome High School graduate at the annual graduation exercises.31 Although Olaf was a bachelor, his affection and concern for the welfare of children was boundless. His popularity with them, which led to their naming a favorite skating pond "Halverson Lake," made a deep impression on the community memory. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the pupil of Plato, wrote a suitable epitaph for all great teachers:

Those who educate children well are more to be honored than even their parents, for these only give them life, those the art of living well.

Olaf Halverson was one of those who deserved that tribute.