Sasha Soboleff talks about his father, Walter Soboleff, during a celebration of Soboleff at the Walter Soboleff Center on Walter Soboleff Day, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sasha Soboleff talks about his father, Walter Soboleff, during a celebration of Soboleff at the Walter Soboleff Center on Walter Soboleff Day, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Friends and family remember Walter Soboleff on his day

Lecture remembers an Alaskan icon

Walter Soboleff wasn’t just a Tlingit scholar, religious leader, Alaska Native civil rights advocate and namesake for a state holiday.

Soboleff, who passed away in 2011 at 102, was a friend and relative, who many still remember fondly. Some of those recollections were shared Thursday in the Sealaska Heritage Institute building named for Soboleff to mark Walter Soboleff Day, which was established by state law in 2014.

“I want to bring my uncle alive to you today,” said Albert Kookesh, who is a former state senator in addition to being a relative of Soboleff.

In recognition of the day, Kookesh wore a bolo tie that was given to him by Soboleff on the day that Kookesh was sworn in as a senator. The tie was made by Nathan Jackson out of silver and baleen. The front of the silver tie depicts a raven, and the back of the tie is dated with the year 1969.

“I’m very careful with it because it’s a treasure,” Kookesh said after his shared memories, which are part of a November lecture series being held be SHI. “The giving is more valuable than this.” He gestured toward the silver clasp.

During his talk, Kookesh shared stories that highlighted Soboleff’s philosophy, humor and resolute goodness in the face of less than ideal situations.

[Walter Soboleff: A retrospective]

One story Kookesh told that demonstrated Soboleff’s personality, was his reaction to finding out a man would not rent to him upon realizing that Soboleff was Alaska Native.

The would-be landlord previously told Soboleff that he could rent an apartment through an exchange of letters. Kookesh said in light of Soboleff’s last name and his recent graduation from University of Dubuque in Iowa, the landlord had not realized Soboleff was Tlingit. So upon, meeting Soboleff and his wife, Genevieve, the man rescinded the offer.

“He (Soboleff) said, ‘I’m sorry to have troubled you,” Kookesh said.

Former Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, tells his favorite Walter Soboleff stories during a celebration of Soboleff at the Walter Soboleff Center on Walter Soboleff Day, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Former Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, tells his favorite Walter Soboleff stories during a celebration of Soboleff at the Walter Soboleff Center on Walter Soboleff Day, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

He marveled at the magnanimity.

Another example Kookesh shared was a trip Soboleff took during his college days. Kookesh said Soboleff’s parents would always provide him with a steamship ticket to travel from Seattle to Southeast Alaska to come home from Iowa, but Soboleff would have to find his way to Seattle.

One year, because of a lack of funds that meant “riding the rails” to Seattle. During a stop, Soboleff and a classmate planned to canvass homes for food. The friend would ask for sandwich materials, and Soboleff was to ask for bread.

However, Soboleff couldn’t bring himself to knock on a door and ask for bread, Kookesh said, so Soboleff used the meager funds in his pocket to purchase bread.

“He never told his friend,” Kookesh said.

SHI President Dr. Rosita Worl, who called Soboleff a mentor, said she is not much of a praying person but does ask for more of that nature.

“Every morning, I do pray and say, ‘Help me be like Dr. Soboleff,’” Worl said.

Lillian Petershoare, who shared memories during the event, said Soboleff told her he would write his negative thoughts down on a piece of paper, crumple up the paper and throw them away.

“Here’s a man who has inspired all of us by being generous at times a person could be angry,” Petershoare said.

That’s not to say Soboleff was a total stoic, according to the people who knew him well.

Kookesh said he had a quick wit and playful sense of humor.

One exchange he recalled, involved a group of men talking about classical music.

One man said he had always wondered about the meaning of Mozart’s Funeral Dirge, and he intended to ask the composer about it when he got to heaven.

Another man, whom Kookesh said was known to be a smart mouth, asked him what he would if the composer wasn’t there?

“Walter, without skipping a beat, said, ‘Then, you ask him,” Kookesh said.

The recounted retort drew big laughs from those in attendance.

Kookesh said Soboleff once caught his sons, Walter Jr., Sasha and Ross, sneaking back into the house after a night out. Soboleff helped them in through the window, and then did not speak to them about it for three days, Kookesh said. The idea was anticipation of punishment would be worse than any actual discipline meted out.

[Soboleff sons and daughter remember their father on his day]

Walter Soboleff Jr. and Sasha Soboleff were both in attendance to hear the story — Ross Soboleff died on 2018.

“I admit nothing,” Walter Soboleff Jr. said.

Both present sons also shared memories of their father.

“When he left us, I inherited his suits,” Walter Soboleff Jr. said with a flourish that drew laughs. “The guy had taste.”

Sasha Soboleff said his father’s iconic status means there’s always a need to be on his best behavior — even at a Washington airport.

“You never know when someone might say, ‘I have a story about your dad,’” Soboleff said.

There are a lot of them to tell in part because of a prolific letter-writing practice that Kookesh said he considers Soboleff’s ultimate legacy.

“He wrote to people in prison,” Kookesh said. “He wrote to people who had just got promoted. He wrote to people that just got a job. He wrote to people that were struggling. He wrote to people that were succeeding. He wrote to people that were just helping. That’s a legacy. It’s not what he did. It’s what he was.”


• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


More in News

Even as coronavirus numbers are going down and vaccines are being distributed, pandemic-related facilities like the testing site at Juneau International Airport, seen here in this Oct. 12 file photo, are scheduled to remain for some time, according to city health officials. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)
Vaccines are coming, but pandemic facilities will remain

Testing sites and other COVID-19 operations will continue, officials say, but infections are trending down.

After violent protesters loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol today, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., join other senators as they return to the House chamber to continue the joint session of the House and Senate and count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Murkowski on impeachment: ‘I will listen carefully’ to both sides

As for timing, the senator said, “our priority this week must be to ensure safety in Washington, D.C.”

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Juneau City Hall. The City and Borough of Juneau has distributed nearly $5 million in household and individual assistance grants since October. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
All housing and most personal assistance grants processed

About $5 million in aid is flowing to households and individuals in Juneau.

A child plays at Capital School Park. The park is in line for a remodel that will fix the crumbling retaining wall, visible in the background. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
A new life is in store for Capital School Park

Public input is helping craft a vision for the park’s voter-approved facelift.

Expected heavy snow and high winds Thursday evening prompted Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to issue a warning of increased avalanche hazard along Thane Road. (File photo)
Avalanche risk increasing along Thane Road

Be careful and plan for the possibility of an extended road closure.

White House, tribes joined to deliver Alaska Native vaccines

The initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Jan. 8

The most recent state and local numbers.

Federal report says pandemic hit seafood industry hard

Catch brought to the docks fell 29% over the course of the first seven months of the year.

Most Read