Monday, August 13, 2012

Writing about Alaska on Judy Welch's retirement plans


While too young to remember her days in Alaska, writing about the Alaska homesteading days of her parents are high on Judy Welch’s priority list as she prepares to end a 15-year career at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Officially a Technical Assistant in Buildings and Grounds, Welch unofficially is the guardian of the control center for all that goes on in a department of more than 50 employees handling all the maintenance, custodial and ground work at the college.

She will end those duties with her retirement Sept. 1. Fellow employees will hold a retirement reception for her Aug. 30.

“The drive to Lawrence is just getting to me,” says Welch, who shares a townhouse there with her oldest son, Aaron. “It’s almost an hour each way. I had planned to wait another year or two.”

While Lawrence is nearly an hour away, it’s a far cry from Clam Gulch on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula where she spent her first 18 months.

“My mom took a bus to the hospital in Seward, had me and bused back to our homestead,” says Welch of the start of a story she plans to put down in writing in retirement.

“My father was living in Michigan and came home one day and said ‘We’re going to Alaska’ and he and my mother packed up, delivered a car to Seattle and then got a plane to Anchorage. After buying all their gear, they flew in a Cub plane to the homestead where they could get 80 acres if they lived on it. They started with a tent while her father built a log cabin.

“Alaska wasn’t even a state then. They had a few neighbors, mostly bachelors and would get together once in a while. And once a month, a doctor and nurse would fly in and bring mail and supplies. They told me a lot of stories such as bears scratching their backs on the crossbeams of the cabin, of putting blankets over the windows because of all the daylight and never walking between a young moose and its mother.

“They had plans for my father (Bob Forstner) to open a woodworking shop and my mom (Juanita) a bakery but something happened to the family and they sold out and left when I was 18 months old. I’ve really become fascinated with Alaska the last few years and want to go there sometime. I was even told that since I was born there I could get a monthly stipend if I came there and lived but I’m not moving to Alaska.”

When she gets done recounting her parents pioneering efforts in Alaska, she can also write about her father being on the USS Downes in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their sneak attack Dec. 7, 1941. “He said he was relaxing in a bunk when he heard the sirens. He thought that was an odd time for a drill, then realized it was real,” says Welch. Bob Forstner passed away in December of 2001, just months after being honored as a Pearl Harbor survivor in Leavenworth’s annual Labor Day Parade.

The family’s move from Alaska was first to California but when they found it unappealing, they were quick to accept an invitation from an aunt and uncle to move to the “nice little town of Leavenworth” where Welch would graduate from Leavenworth High School in 1970. “I was a library helper and made the honor roll,” she remembers. “My senior year I would go to class in the morning and work my Office Education class for Armed Forces Insurance at Fort Leavenworth in the afternoon. I think I made $1.25 an hour.”

Following graduation she enrolled at Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia. “I wanted to be an English teacher but that lasted only a semester. It was the first time I really had my freedom. I was kind of sheltered growing up and thought I didn’t need school. Stupid me.”

She returned to work for Armed Forces Insurance, married and had Aaron, the first of two sons. In 1975, she would begin the first of three stints working in the Walmart store in Leavenworth. “I left and returned three times over 11 years,” she says.

She came to KCKCC in 1997 working the front desk of the Business Office. “I interviewed with Russell Knapp and he liked the fact I had worked layaway at Walmart; he said if I could handle customers there, I could handle the students.” In 2002, she moved to Buildings and Grounds.

During her tenure at KCKCC, she has completed the education she started in 1970, earning an AA from KCKCC in 2000 and a BA on-line in business management from Northwest Missouri in 2004. “Even when I quit Emporia, I knew sometime I had to go back to school.”

In addition to her writing, retirement will include taking the entire family to St. Louis for a long weekend, joining her two best friends to see the famed Biltmore Hotel in Ashville, N.C., and an October trip to see a nephew just back from Germany in Yuba, Calif. “I also like to do some quilting and would like to get a part-time job, hopefully at KU.”

There’s also Aaron’s 6-year-old daughter, Addyson, who she gets to care for each weekend, and youngest son, Adrian, a Cat 5 technician in KCKCC’s Buildings and Grounds. “I’m going to miss a lot about the college but they’re not getting rid of me,” she vows. “I’ll be back for different retirement parties plus I have a pretty close connection in Buildings and Grounds.”