John Dapcevich, an Alaska resident since 1928, died peacefully on Sept. 1 at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau surrounded by family. He was three weeks shy of his 96th birthday.
John’s life paralleled that of Alaskan history. His story is one of immigrant rags-to-riches after his parents — Sam (Savo) and Stana Dapcevich, known by many as “Baba” and “Tata” — came to the United States from Cetinje, Montenegro by way of Ellis Island, New York. John was born in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in 1926, and traveled across the country, living in Minnesota and Montana, before his parents ultimately settled in Southeast Alaska to work in the mines.
At the age of 2, John arrived in Juneau in October of 1928 and would spend the next nine decades relaying memories of growing up on Starr Hill in a family home built in 1933 that he shared with his parents, many siblings, and extended family. A captivating storyteller, John would often recall stories working as a young child in the early days of Alaska’s territorial history selling newspapers, cleaning local bars, and learning English as an elementary-aged student in a school that did not offer additional educational services for Serbian-speaking children of immigrants.
“Growing up on Starr Hill was not without the joy of children, who enjoyed each other’s company and who had a special feeling of community. The out-of-doors was our playground. In the summertime, we played kick-the-can or greenlight or hide and go seek; but in the wintertime it was special,” he would later recall of growing up in Juneau.
He would later reminisce riding a toboggan with up to seven other children, sliding “down 5th Street from Nelson all the way to Franklin Street.”
“We also made skis from barrel staves and innertubes cut up and made into bindings. We would build jumps halfway down the hill to add a little spice to the descent. We had a special place that is part of Juneau’s history, The Chickenyard, [which was] a basketball court at the base of Starr Hill.”
With a sharp memory and wit, John’s memories spanned nearly 10 decades of Alaska’s history, including the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war recovery, the last decade of Alaska’s territorial status and the fight for statehood, the oil boom of the 1970s, and the settlement of the Alaska Native Lands claims, among many other events.
In his later years, he often sat at his dining table and shared first-hand stories with family members visiting from all corners of the globe. A favorite retelling was the 1935 miners’ labor strike against the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company, in which he recalled having witnessed miners striking over acceptable working conditions at the AJ Mine in Juneau.
After graduating from Juneau High School in 1944 in the middle of World War II, John received his father’s permission to enlist in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. He served on Kodiak Island and was awarded an overseas service ribbon for having been stationed on U.S. territorial land.
Even in the most dire of situations, John was a person that all could rely on for a clever joke and a good time. With a twinkle in his glacial blue eyes, John often reminisced about the time he and two of his Naval shipmates plotted to send their parents photographs of them enjoying themselves while stationed on Kodiak Island. They had a sailor’s love for beer, but didn’t want their parents to know that they were drinking. So, the three bought a Coca-Cola to share between them to show their parents that they were drinking soda while their comrades were drinking beer — they passed the bottle of Coca-Cola around and each took a respective photo to send their parents.
After the war, John fathered three children — John (Dick), Dave and Dayle — and continued his work for the territory. A dedicated public servant, he is perhaps the only Alaskan to have served or worked in all six levels of government, including the federal, territorial, state, and city levels as well as those of the borough and unified city and borough. A recommendation for the lifetime achievement award — which he was given in 2002 by Gov. Tony Knowles — reads that he had been “involved in all aspects of government in Alaska and have made significant contributions to the future of the last frontier.”
John found the love of his life on a ferry leaving Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in 1967 when he met Janice, who was coming to Alaska from the East Coast to explore the possibility of working in the Last Frontier. She hadn’t yet decided where she would land, but John cleverly convinced the young nurse to get off the ferry in Juneau. Janice spent an Alaskan summer working at St. Ann’s Hospital in Juneau and enjoying the capital city through John’s eyes. After returning to Maryland for the winter, she moved to Sitka the following spring to be with John. With a new job at Sitka Community Hospital, she and John married in 1968 and would become parents to twins, Marko and Bob, the following year.
With a patient ear, John would spend the rest of his life proving to be a tireless public servant who worked across the political aisle. He was appointed by both a Democrat and Republican to the Alaska Pioneers’ Homes Advisory Board, where he served a total of 16 years. Notably, he also served on the Alaska Public Offices Commission where, at the point of his retirement, he had consulted with and advised every governor since statehood on a variety of state and municipal issues.
In 1960, John moved to Sitka where he served six terms as mayor between 1971 and 1989. During this time, he worked to unify the City of Sitka with the borough government and won his election as the first mayor of the Unified City and Borough of Sitka in 1971. He was awarded Alaska Municipal League Elected Official of the Year in 1989 and was named Alaska Mayor Emeritus.
Having served as the vice president for the Alaska State Small Business Corporation Board, John was supportive of local businesses and went on to open his own, Dapcevich Accounting Service. Sixty years later, the business is owned and operated by his sons Dick and Dave, and granddaughter, Diana.
In 1995, John and his wife Janice moved to Juneau to be closer to their extended family. Other than brief stints in Nome and at the Chichagoff mining community, John lived his entire life in either Juneau or Sitka.
John was awarded Alaska’s First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2018. Over the course of his lifetime, he would continue his dedicated work for the communities that he dearly loved. His extensive resume, which can also be found on Wikipedia, includes his position as chair of the Southeast Alaska Democratic Party and the State Central Council of the Alaska Democratic Party, and his work as the Service Officer Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President of the Alaska Borough Mayor’s Association, Vice President of the Alaska City Mayor’s Association.
He also held roles with the AARP State Legislative Committee, the U.S. Crime and Public Safety Steering Committee, the American Legion National Counter Subversive Activities Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, the Statewide Economic Recovery Committee, the Tongass Timber Task Force, the Alaska Statehood Commission, and the Southeastern Alaska Community Action Program.
John served in the Territorial Teachers’ Retirement System and was a budget analyst with the former Alaska territory’s Fiscal and Budget Management Office. He also worked with the Alaska Statehood Commission, the Alaska Day Committee Board of Trustees, the Sitka Borough Assembly, the City of Sitka Finance Committee, and the City of Sitka Utility Committee, the Sitka Airport Committee, the Southeast Conference Board of Directors, and the Sitka Charter Commission.
John was an active participant in a number of community organizations, including the American Legion Post 13, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Legion of Moose, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Alaska Miners’ Association, and the Sitka Historical Society. He was also a life member to both the Sitka Sportsmen’s Association and Pioneers of Alaska.
John was one of the first non-native members invited to join the Alaska Native Brotherhood and was given the name Kaag Daa, an honorable designation that he was proud to wear.
An avid poker player and sports enthusiast, John knew when to set work aside and cut loose. Central to his life was his family, whom he prided on being extensive and close-knit. John’s love for his Montenegrin heritage was felt by the five generations that had grown to love his Serbian sayings and nods to “the old country.”
His death is a loss felt by many, but also serves as a reminder to live life with integrity, authenticity, and a devotion to community. Though he is gone, his memory, smile, and love of good cheese live on in the many lives that he’s touched, including his wife of 54 years Janice, his sister Natalie Alton, daughter Dayle, and sons John R. (Dick), Dave, Michael, Marko and Bob. He left seven grandchildren ranging in age from 30 to 53, including (in order) Richard, David Lee, Steven, Sam, Sarah, Madison, Diana, and Joe. More than a dozen great grandchildren came to know John, including Brittni, Pearl, Cece, Taylor, Kiersten, Kyle, Max, Kinsey, Annabelle, Alexandrea, Alexander, William, and Oscar. John’s first great-great grandchild, Luca, was born in Juneau in June of this year.
John was preceded in death by his parents, Sam and Stana Dapcevich, his sisters Violet Cope and Mileva (Mae), and his brothers Robert, Paul, William, and Don.
John’s ashes will be interred at the Sitka National Cemetery.