FAIRBANKS — Kathleen Leitgeb never set out to be an anthropologist, archaeologist and educational tour guide living in Fairbanks, but what started as a lark turned into a lifelong love affair with Alaska.
Leitgeb, the program director for the Fairbanks Denakkanaaga Road Scholar program, was born and raised in Chelsea, New York, and graduated from high school in the mid-60s with a less-than-stellar grade point average.
“I went where all my girlfriends went, which was a commercial high school that taught you steno and typing. I hated it. It wasn’t for me, so I lost interest. I did graduate, but barely,” Leitgeb said Friday afternoon at her office in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.
Convinced she wouldn’t be able to get into college, Leitgeb took a boring but steady job.
“I went to work at J.C. Penney headquarters in New York, and my whole job was ordering toilet paper for the 1,800 stores. That’s what I did all day long,” Leitgeb said.
A chance for adventure
After several years with the company, Leitgeb was talked into applying to the University of Alaska Fairbanks by one of her friends who was studying there.
“She began to call me endlessly, saying, ‘You’d love it up here.’ So I thought, ‘Just to shut her up, I’ll apply, and then I can show her that they won’t take me,’” Leitgeb said.
Much to her surprise, she was accepted, and it was then Leitgeb realized she was “tired of ordering toilet paper.”
“I said, ‘I’ve been doing it for three years, and they say I have a good future here, but do I want to do this for the rest of my life?’ So I figured I’d just go up there for a year or two, but I was one of the people that got sucked in. It’s just so different.”
As a fast-talking East Coaster with a thick New York accent, Leitgeb had a little trouble fitting in on campus.
“One of my girlfriends said, ‘You give my boyfriend a headache because you never shut up,’” Leitgeb said.
Leitgeb started at UAF as an English major but changed majors after taking an anthropology class and discovering she loved it.
“That was the end of me,” Leitgeb said.
Leitgeb met Jim Doore, the man who would become her husband, while working at KUAC on campus. She graduated with a degree in anthropology and was recruited to work as an archaeologist on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline shortly afterward. It was after a helicopter dropped her off at a remote site that Leitgeb truly fell in love with her adopted home.
“I stepped off and he flew away and it was profoundly quiet. I was all by myself. I stood there and looked around and said, ‘This looks like the way it looked the day it was made.’ I think that was a profound experience for someone from a big city. I think the moment my foot hit that ground, and I saw that and felt that, that’s when I knew I was going to be an Alaskan,” Leitgeb said.
After a year with the pipeline, Leitgeb headed to Arizona to get her master’s degree. She left after one semester because it was “too damn hot,” and because she realized she missed her boyfriend.
“He’d been proposing for a while, and I realized I should take this guy,” Leitgeb said.
Upon her return, she took a job with UAF doing archeology field work across the state, working at remote sites in Kodiak, Sitka, Prudhoe Bay and Barrow, among others.
She and Jim married, and since “I was an archaeologist, he worked for DoT, and when the ground froze, we were laid off,” the couple became snowbirds, living off the coast of Mexico in a sailboat Jim built himself.
A surprise career turn
Leitgeb eventually quit her job with UAF to have her son, Frank, but was lured back to work by her former boss when the boy was about 4 years old.
“She said, ‘I’ve got a job for you. It’s Elder Hostel.’ I looked at her and said, ‘That’s a weird name for an archaeology site.’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not a site, it’s educational tourism for seniors,’” Leitgeb said.
Now called Road Scholar, the program offers seniors all-inclusive experiential learning adventures in more than 150 countries and 5,500 locations worldwide.
Leitgeb heads the Fairbanks portion of the program, which was originally affiliated with UAF until being taken over by Denakkanaaga, a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice for Alaska Native elders in the Interior.
The Fairbanks-based portion of the program gives visitors a behind-the-scenes, insider look at the culture and customs of Interior Alaska and other parts of the state. Leitgeb or one of her staff accompany visitors on all portions of the trip and share their own knowledge while coordinating with local experts to create an immersive, educational experience.
Leitgeb said the association with Denakkanaaga is especially beneficial because the elders are always willing to talk to visitors. Some speak about living a subsistence lifestyle, while others share sometimes painful memories of discrimination and cultural suppression, such as the elder who told of being physically ripped from her father’s arms to be sent to a state-run boarding school as a young girl.
Though most tours take place during the summer season, the program offers two off-season tours to give visitors a look at the wonders of an Alaska winter. Highlights of the November trip includes Chena Hot Springs, aurora classes and Fairbanks history lectures, while the March tour includes sled dog races, the World Ice Art Championships and a four-day trip to Coldfoot, complete with DoT field trips and snowshoeing.
The Fairbanks-based program is so popular with participants it was voted the best Road Scholar program in the country in 2015 and 2016, according to Leitgeb.
The right choice
Leitgeb said moving to Alaska opened up a world of possibilities she might not have had if she’d stayed in New York.
“I never thought I’d go to Alaska, it was never on my horizon. But it’s just the place to be. It has enriched me,” Leitgeb said.