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November 25, 2017

Farewell to a Historian and Mentor


Dr. Claus Naske

“WHY do YOU have to argue with the professor EVERY class?! Can’t you just let him talk so I can write this stuff down, take a test, graduate and get a job?!”

Oh, that was a weekly conversation with some of my UAF classmates. (You’re shocked, I know.)

I sat enraptured by Terrence Cole’s take on history. He was right, the historical truth was often most boldly told in political cartoons rather than in textbooks. I listened in Dr. Pierce’s class. He was quite old, with even older maps. I told him once the continents had moved since his maps were made. He smiled.

I behaved for the most part until I was in Dr. Claus Naske’s class. I took every course he taught. He was assigned to be my advisor.

It’s hard for me to think about him without breaking into a giant smile. He always seemed to get me going, and I did the same for him. He kicked me out of class once. I waited outside the door and argued with him all the way to his office. What about? Who knows?

He pushed my buttons, but he made me better at asking questions. He invited me to Thanksgiving with his family. It was lovely. We went to wine tastings on Thursday nights at the campus pub. He hated my boyfriend and called him “the fake Fabio.” He was right. He described me as “wonderfully irreverent.”

Naske’s office was full of pictures of his wife and family — and piles of books in, you know, a controlled academic sort of mess. A flannel shirt with a bolo tie was his standard attire.

Here’s the thing about Naske: He taught me to really love Alaska by helping me understand it.

He started teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1969, the year before I was born. He wrote or co-wrote a dozen books. “Alaska: A History of the 49th State” is considered a standard. He was director of the UA Press. And for many of us, he was our John the Baptist of Alaska history.

It didn’t matter whether we were drinking coffee in his office, sitting in class or relaxing in the pub, he made me fall in love with whoever he was telling a story about. As he spoke, in his distinct German accent, his arms would wave and his eyes would twinkle. As his tale unfolded, he would start laughing at his own story. And he would have me laughing too before I even knew what was funny.

For him, history wasn’t just about economics or characters or geography. It was everything weaved together, and how it all worked to make people who they are.

History loomed large in Naske’s personal story. His mother’s family had died in the Holocaust. She was a German Jew. She and her children had been saved by her husband, a Catholic officer in the German army.

It was fitting that Naske discovered the Neustadt letters in the National Archives. The letters described a mostly forgotten plan to relocate Jews from Nazi Germany to Alaska in 1939. Alaskans, including our non-voting delegate to Washington, Anthony J. Dimond, protested against giving refugee status to Jews fleeing from Hitler. Dimond’s protest, in hindsight, is both tragic and embarrassing.

Naske once told the Daily News, “In Iowa, people are more concerned with the price of hogs. People are not much concerned with foreign affairs. Look at Cambodia and the killing fields. We let that happen. Look at the Tutsis and the Hutus. What should the international community do?”

He had an amazing way of connecting history to the present. And now, when I read news of Syria or the invasion of Crimea, I hear his words.

A few years ago, during a visit to Anchorage, Naske called my radio show. We had a big time and it meant the world to me.

Through his history lessons, he inspired generations of students, a generation of Alaskans. He challenged us all to figure out what we could give back to Alaska.

I’ve written often about how proud I am of so many Alaskans. I have a running list:
  • In 1922, a Tlingit chief named Charlie Jones was jailed for voting. His protest helped Native Alaskans get the right to vote two years before Native Americans.
  • In 1944, Roberta Schenck, a Native woman, refused to budge from her seat in the “White’s Only” section of a Nome movie theater. She was dragged out and jailed. She was Alaska’s Rosa Parks.
  • Because of her bravery and the moving testimony of Elizabeth Peratrovich, on Feb. 16, 1945, Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening signed an anti-discrimination law for Alaska.
  • We decriminalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade. Our privacy laws are the strongest in the country.
  • Alaskans have catalyzed change for the country. Democrat Bob Bartlett, one of our first U.S. senators, passed more legislation than any other lawmaker. Among those laws was a mandate that public buildings be accessible to the disabled. That landmark legislation became known as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Gruening, in his time as a Democratic U.S. senator from Alaska, helped establish the nationwide 911 emergency number and was one of only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the fraud that launched the Vietnam War.
  • Democrat Mike Gravel risked jail time by reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and in doing so arguably helped end the Vietnam War.
  • As a Republican secretary of the interior, former Gov. Wally Hickel helped establish Earth Day.
  • Governor Jay Hammond created the Permanent Fund and was just about the coolest Alaskan ever.

This week I learned that my professor and mentor and friend had passed away. My condolences and best wishes to his family. Thanks for sharing him with so many of us for so many years.

An abridged version of this article is cross-posted at The Anchorage Daily News.




6 Responses to “Farewell to a Historian and Mentor”
  1. mag the mick says:

    Thanks for your memories of this remarkable teacher.

    If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, an alternative-history spin on what might have happened HAD the United States opened Alaska to Jewish refugees in the 30’s.

  2. AK_South says:

    Ah, what a jolt it must have been to hear that news. My sincere condolences. Thank you for sharing your memories of an impressive teacher.

  3. Zyxomma says:

    What a fine and fitting obit, Shannyn. I mourn his loss, and offer my condolences to you and all his students, as well as his family.

  4. mike from iowa says:

    There is an impressive list of names of young iowans from my hometown,etched in black marble on the veterans memorial near the Cherokee,iowa courthouse. Us iowans know/knew where Cambodia is/was. Neighbors across the street lost a son in ‘Nam. My sister’s ex-boyfriend gave his life there. Another family across town lost a son. Several others were mangled,physically and mentally. Just saying.

  5. Diane says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a teacher.
    I am sorry for you loss and for others who will not benefit from his knowledge

  6. A fine tribute to Alaska’s greatest historian, Shannyn.


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