Jirdes Winther Baxter chats with Wayne Bertholl during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Jirdes Winther Baxter chats with Wayne Bertholl during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Jirdes Winther Baxter, last survivor of 1925 Nome serum run, celebrates 100th birthday in Juneau

Five generations of family, dozens of friends and a coalition of political leaders offer tributes.

Jirdes Winther’s life-endangering story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country before she was a year old, having just been diagnosed with diphtheria in Nome. On Saturday afternoon, as the last living survivor of the serum run that inspired the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, she celebrated her 100th birthday with five generations of family and scores of others whose lives have been affected by hers.

Now known by her married name of Jirdes Winther Baxter, family members said she didn’t want a big party celebrating her 100th birthday. But after four hours of mostly sitting in a favorite chair brought from home and greeting a nonstop crowd of well-wishers at the Juneau Yacht Club, she still had plenty of energy to chat about the day that was and the days ahead.

“It’s been great to see everybody,” she said. “I didn’t know I had so many friends.”

Fred Baxter offers a tribute to his mother, Jirdes Winther Baxter, before a large crowd of family, friends and dignitaries during her 100th birthday party Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Fred Baxter offers a tribute to his mother, Jirdes Winther Baxter, before a large crowd of family, friends and dignitaries during her 100th birthday party Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Beyond her very large circle of family and friends, the celebration also featured citations from the Juneau Assembly and Alaska State Legislature read by members who showed up to read them in person, a letter of congratulations from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and a call from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the midst of the party.

“I’m hoping that everyone that has gathered around you to celebrate your 100th is spending it with you in true Alaskan style,” Murkowski said in the call played to those gathered over a speakerphone. She said it was an occasion to celebrate “those who have helped make our state the most incredible place, and you and your family have done just that.”

Nearly all the notoriety surrounding Baxter — which includes at least three documentaries plus other historical projects — is about what’s essentially the first year of her life that was threatened by the diphtheria epidemic in Nome during the winter of 1925.

Born on Feb. 25, 1924, to parents who had moved from Norway to Nome, Jirdes was hospitalized with the illness on Jan. 31, 1925. Just days earlier Nome’s only doctor, Curtis Welch, had sent an emergency telegraph to the U.S. Public Health Service requesting 1 million units of diphtheria antitoxin.

That resulted in the famous serum run by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs over 674 miles in five and a half days from Nenana to Nome. That “Great Race of Mercy” is commemorated with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with this year’s ceremonial start scheduled Saturday in Anchorage and official race start from Willow on Sunday.

Jirdes Winther Baxter blows out the candles on her cake during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Jirdes Winther Baxter blows out the candles on her cake during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Among the many others also ill during the epidemic were Jirdes’ mother, Ragnhild, and two brothers, who were quarantined. According to one of her sons, Fred, the children received the last of the existing serum and his grandmother was the first to receive the new medication when it arrived.

“In a record from the city of Nome there is a reference to the fact that she received the first serum that came in on the sled on, I think, either the night of the second of February or early in the morning of the third,” he said during a narrative of his family’s history to the crowd at the party.

Jirdes spent another 22 days, including her first birthday, in quarantine. In a tribute to her father, Johan Winther, published at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum’s website, Jirdes states that while her mother’s life was saved by the serum run, her health didn’t fully recover.

“Mother was not well after her bout with diphtheria, and we had to leave Nome,” she wrote. “In 1927, we left on the Victoria for Seattle. In 1929, we returned to Alaska and made our home in Juneau. My father made his living fishing, and in 1929, he purchased his first boat and called it the Emma, but always referred to it as the Little Emma. He fished until the age of 80.”

Jirdes Winther Baxter accepts birthday greetings from Bob Engelbrecht and Jan McPhetres during Baxter’s 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Jirdes Winther Baxter accepts birthday greetings from Bob Engelbrecht and Jan McPhetres during Baxter’s 100th birthday celebration Saturday at the Juneau Yacht Club. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Beyond the fame of her infancy, Jirdes during her many decades in Juneau has lived a life of notorious achievement (according to the official citations and other congratulations) and tireless dedication raising a large family (according to countless people at the party sharing their memories of her).

She met and married Fred Baxter (subsequently naming one of their sons after him) in 1943. They spent the following years raising six children while he worked for Pan American World Airways, moving to Seattle for a couple of years in the mid-1940s before returning to Juneau.

Politics and government also became a part of their lives, with the elder Fred being elected to the Juneau City Council (later the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly) in 1956, 1958, 1960 and 1962. Meanwhile, Jirdes took a job with Lt. Gov. Hugh Wade and then later worked for the Retirement Division of the state Department of Revenue.

A citation from the Juneau Assembly recognizing her 100th birthday honors her as a “shadow member” of the municipal council during the 15 years her husband would eventually serve. The citation by the Alaska Legislature states she “took a great interest in local politics, providing support and guidance during her husband’s fifteen years in elected office.”

But during her birthday party she downplayed having any significant role in local politics beyond the typical conversations that might be expected with her husband, and said she worked for the lieutenant governor for reasons having nothing to do with politics.

“I only worked for him for a short time,” she added.

Guests at Jirdes Winther Baxter’s 100th birthday party help themselves to the buffet at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Guests at Jirdes Winther Baxter’s 100th birthday party help themselves to the buffet at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

What might have been the end of their time in Juneau came when Pan-Am ended service to Alaska’s capital city, resulting in the family moving first to New York City and then New Zealand between 1965 and 1970.

“We wouldn’t have left if Pan-Am hadn’t left here,” she said. “He never liked living in New York.”

That assignment lasted only a few months, however, as he was assigned to temporary duties and then as the airport manager for the airline in New Zealand. But in 1970, facing a transfer from New Zealand back to New York, Fred Baxter opted to retire from the airline and the family returned to Juneau.

A whirlwind of political and occupational activity followed, as her husband would continue to be elected intermittently to the Assembly until 1986, while working other jobs such as serving as the airport manager for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough during the construction of the Ketchikan Airport. He retired in 1983.

Jirdes’ legacy as the sole survivor of the serum run has continued to expand both through her family and in historical narratives.

According to the Assembly proclamation read by Mayor Beth Weldon during Saturday’s party, Jirdes has “six children 18 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren with two more on the way.”

Taylor Bentley, 20, wipes away tears as she reads a speech to her great-grandmother, Jirdes Winther Baxter, during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Taylor Bentley, 20, wipes away tears as she reads a speech to her great-grandmother, Jirdes Winther Baxter, during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

One of those great-grandchildren, Taylor Bentley, 20, wept at times as she shared her experiences with Jirdes in front of her many relatives and friends.

“Gram is the glue that holds us all together,” Bentley said. “She’s taught us the true meaning of love and family by being there to support us no matter what. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, Gram treats everyone with love and respect.”

Bentley said she’s spent a lot of time with Jirdes during the past few years, cleaning her house once a week.

“The weekly cleaning turned into an opportunity for quality time and conversation, and something I always look forward to,” Bentley said. “This past year she has been my biggest supporter with a lot of changes, and when I arrive at her house she always makes sure to ask how I’m doing, what’s new with my life and if I’m hungry.”

Among the political leaders at the party, a personal tribute was offered by state Rep. Andi Story of Juneau.

“We’ve had the joy of worshipping at church together for many, many years, and just knowing your family and your friends, and everything that you and Fred contributed to our community is invaluable,” she said. “And you have done that with such warmth and graciousness, and making us all feel so cared for, and we just thank you from the bottom of our hearts are doing that.”

Beyond the personal connection, Story said, “I have to say your experience when you were younger, your diphtheria experience, it brought to our state the awareness of the importance of public health and I thank you for your contributions.”

The 2012 documentary “Icebound,” recalling events of the serum run by dog sleds to Nome during the winter of 1925.

Among the documentaries retelling the story of the serum run is “Icebound,” with Jirdes a featured guest at the premier screening at the Anchorage International Film Festival in December of 2013.

“It was just absolutely wonderful,” she told the Anchorage Daily News after the screening. “The mushers never got enough recognition. It took long enough, but at least it finally happened.”

The article notes the film goes beyond the famously popular sled dog Balto, who led the team during the final leg of the journey, and “explores the unheard stories of heroism, racism and the plagues that wiped out entire communities — a sometimes-ugly piece of Alaska history.”

Jirdes got a very small sampling of how rough the journey was when she was honored as an honorary musher at the ceremonial start of the 2005 Iditarod. During Saturday’s party, she said she didn’t actually make what would have been her first attempt at driving the sleds resembling those that saved her mother’s life.

“I was sitting in the sled,” she said, adding the 15 minutes she spent in it was one of the most painful experiences of her life.

Gifts, flowers, cards and a legislative citation for Jirdes Winther Baxter are placed on a table at the entrance of the Juneau Yacht Club during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Gifts, flowers, cards and a legislative citation for Jirdes Winther Baxter are placed on a table at the entrance of the Juneau Yacht Club during her 100th birthday celebration Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

These days Jirdes said her life is considerably more relaxed, spending time with the many members of her family who either still live in Juneau or visit, along with keeping track of the news — although not so much the local political happenings anymore.

Jirdes said she wasn’t making any special plans for her actual 100th birthday on Sunday, aside from perhaps opening and reading all the cards she got at Saturday’s party.

“Just another day,” she said.

Her family, naturally, had more festive ideas, with plans for a more intimate birthday celebration at her house during the day. But Jirdes, who already got to blow out the candles on one cake Saturday and had plenty of flowers and other items to take home from that party, looked amused when asked about gift suggestions.

’“There’s nothing I want,” she said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

Fred Baxter and Berta Winther accept a call from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski congratulating Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Fred Baxter and Berta Winther accept a call from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski congratulating Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon reads a citation from the Juneau Assembly honoring Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon reads a citation from the Juneau Assembly honoring Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau congratulates Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. Other legislators behind Story attending the party and offering congratulations include, from right to left, Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, Richard Foster, D-Nome, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau congratulates Jirdes Winther Baxter during her 100th birthday celebration at the Juneau Yacht Club on Saturday. Other legislators behind Story attending the party and offering congratulations include, from right to left, Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, Richard Foster, D-Nome, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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