HB217 was passed and signed into law by the 28th Alaska State Legislature in 2014, “an act establishing November 14 each year as Dr. Walter Soboleff Day”.
Dr. Walter Soboleff was an active and influential member in our community and Alaska. His impressive resume of contributions to so many organizations and groups throughout his long and productive life is dizzying, and seems to defy what one person can accomplish in a lifetime.
Of Tlingit and Russian decent, Dr. Soboleff was a college graduate at a time when it was difficult for anyone to receive an education, no less a Native Alaskan man. He received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1939, an honorary doctorate of divinity from Dubuque University in 1952, and a doctor of humanities from the University of Alaska in 1968.
He joined the Alaska Native Brotherhood and attended his first convention in 1930, the year after the landmark 1929 ANB Convention, which passed the first resolution calling on the ANB to pursue the “land suit.” This 42-year ANB initiative resulted in the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the founding of Sealaska Corporation and hundreds of Alaska Native village and regional corporations. He served in all offices of the ANB Grand Camp, including six terms as grand president. He was named ANB Grand President Emeritus in 1999 and regularly attended convention.
Moving to Juneau with his wife and life partner, Genevieve E. Soboleff, in 1940, he became the pastor at the Juneau Memorial Church, a Presbyterian church founded to serve the Native community of Juneau until 1962. During this time, the Soboleff family took in many people who needed a meal, a place to stay or someone to care about them. There are stories about Genevieve’s delicious meals and baked goods. Years after Genevieve passed; Dr. Soboleff remarried Stella Atkinson and greatly enjoyed her companionship and sense of humor.
Dr. Soboleff had an uncanny ability to bring people together from different backgrounds and cultures around basic principles of healthy living through sobriety, education and good will to build tolerance and understanding. Although he felt his crowning achievement was a church filled with people of all walks of life and from all levels of society, throughout his life he spoke deeply to people of all races and faiths. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he produced the weekly “Tlingit News,” a broadcast of news and current events translated into Tlingit.
Soboleff joined the Alaska National Guard in 1951 and served a full military career in the guard, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1971. He joined the Mount Juneau Masonic Lodge No. 147 (currently Mount Juneau Masonic Gastineau Lodge), and became a 33rd degree Mason. He joined the Juneau Lions Club in 1946 and was a founding member of the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament in 1947.
In 1970, at age 62, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he served the next four years as the UAF’s first director of Native studies. At a pivotal time, he brought Alaska Native elders from around the state into a college classroom to share their knowledge with students in an academic setting.
In his 2011 obituary, his youngest son, Ross, wrote, “It is his work with people that is his legacy”.
How can we honor Dr. Walter Soboleff Day this Nov. 14? Those of us fortunate enough to have known him, and there are many of us, may fondly remember the handwritten notes and cards received in the mail from him. Through this simple act of recognition and caring, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum would like to invite you this Nov. 14 to reach out to someone you know and send them a personal note of encouragement. As Dr. Soboleff once said, “When you give, feel good about it”.
In celebration of Dr. Walter Soboleff Day, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum will provide complimentary note cards and U.S. postage to anyone who wishes to stop by and write a note of encouragement to someone they know.
• Jane Lindsey is the director of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.