YOUNG SARAH IN SKAGWAY

Sarah Heath (now Palin), left, looks up at the camera after looking at a book held by her sister Heather in 1969, not long before they moved north to Eagle River. Right is Ted Cochran, whose mom Ginny took this photo in their home. The Heath kids lived across the street. The future governor of Alaska and Republican vice president candidate was five. Photo courtesy of Tim Cochran

Sarah Palin first lived here

Skagway reacts to news of governor's rise to national stage

By JEFF BRADY

The next vice president of the United States might just be a girl who lived in Skagway for five years.
This community can take a little credit for the rise of Sarah Heath Palin, even though Wasilla is getting all the media attention as her Alaskan “home town.”
But Skagway was her first Alaska home, and a few residents in town remember Chuck and Sally Heath and their four children: Chucky, Heather, Sarah and Molly.
Sarah was three months old when the family arrived here in 1964, and her dad Chuck worked for both the railroad and the school. He’s pictured in the 1965 through 1969 Skagway School yearbooks. Depending on the year, he taught fifth, sixth or seventh grade, physical education, and even coached the high school basketball team. Only Chucky and Heather were old enough to enter kindergarten before the family moved on to Eagle River in 1969.
They first lived across the river at the old White Pass tank farm for a couple years, then rented a home from Betty Selmer, and finally settled into the old Rasmuson house, now occupied by Andy and Joanne Beierly.
In a 2006 e-mail passed on by then-gubernatorial candidate Palin to the News, Sally Heath said her children used to play with the Cochran and Moore kids.
This week, Tim Cochran, now the local manager for Petro Marine, brought the News a photo that his mother shot of Sarah and Heather playing with his brother Ted. Sarah was probably five in the photo, so it was taken just before they left town, he guessed.
“It’s neat to see a person that used to stem from the same area possibly get into or run for the oval office,” he said.
Cochran said they lived next to the Heaths at the tank farm, and then moved downtown and across the street from the Heaths at First and Main. He said they played in the woods a lot with the Heath kids.
“Sarah was a little tag-along,” Tim said. “She’d either tag along with me and Chucky, or with Ted and Heather.”
Cochran said the family made a trip to Eagle River the following year to visit the Heaths. Then he didn’t see them until they came back to Skagway with the new governor for a family retreat in May 2007. At the time, he introduced Gov. Palin to his youngest brother, who was just a toddler when they left town.
Tom Cochran would be elected mayor that summer in Skagway’s first borough election. He said he had not yet been contacted by national media regarding Sarah Palin’s Skagway years.
“She left here when she was pretty young and I was even younger,” he said. “All I can remember about the Heath family was that they had lots of stuffed animal heads on the walls of their house. Chuck and Sally were avid hunters.”
Tom Cochran said he was “quite surprised” when he heard the announcement that Palin was John McCain’s choice to be his running mate, the first female ever on the Republican ticket.
"It could also be quite beneficial for the state of Alaska especially considering all the energy issues facing the U.S. right now,” he added. “I guess my only concern is the possible lack of leadership at the executive level of the state if Palin and (Lt. Gov Sean) Parnell both attain the offices they currently seek. We will have to have a special election for a new governor.”

The Trail had a little fun with teacher Chuck Heath for his 1967 yearbook photo. He’s still a big hunter. Skagway School

The news caught everyone by surprise, including the Heaths. They had started a hunting trip the day before the news broke and had to turn back because of a creek that flooded.
Local resident Kathy Hosford, a close friend of the family who hosted them at the Chilkoot Trail Outpost last year, said she received an email from the Heaths before they were shipped off to Minnesota for the Republican National Convention.
“While many of us were aware of her potentially being on the short list, her selection took us by total surprise. Her folks on Saturday expressed the same,” she said.
“They had apparently headed out to go moose hunting on Thursday night when high water prevented them from getting to their camp,” Hosford said. “Upon arriving at home quite late, you can imagine the reaction to the message waiting on their voice mail.”
She said Sally heard Chuck exclaim “‘Holy Smokes’ a few times.”
Hosford called the news exhilarating and said Sally and Chuck “looked so proud along with the whole family on national TV. We should all be proud.”
Dyea neighbor, sister-in-law Beryl Lingle Hosford, was a student of Chuck Heath’s, along with her husband Ray, her sister Denise, and her husband, Paul Taylor.
Beryl also was one of girls in town whom the Heaths called on to babysit their children, along with Geri Henricksen, Kathleen O’Daniel, Joanne Beierly, Peggy Maki Williams, and Doug Warner.
“I was 11 when I first babysat for the Heaths – soon after they came to Skagway – and Sarah was just a few months old,” Beryl said. “They were a very vibrant, loving, fun family and truly enjoyed Alaskan life. I am very excited at Senator McCain’s choice as Sarah for his running mate and wish them both the very best.”
Henricksen and O’Daniel, who now live in Juneau, said they have little memory of babysitting the Heath kids. They mostly remember Chuck being a tough teacher.
O’Daniel said her only memory “of the pack of Heath kids” was when she made popcorn for them, and it overflowed while she went outside to check on them.
“I came back and the popcorn was all over the place,” she said. “I told the kids to help me pick it up if they wanted more popcorn.”
Beierly said she was overwhelmed by the news. “I babysat her and I’m just real proud of her,” she said, adding that she considers Sarah Palin a friend.
Palin and her family toured their old home when they were here in 2007, Beierly said. “She didn’t recognize much. She said so many changes had happened to Skagway.”
In an interview with the News then, Palin said she did remember the rock wall and the trees outside the home, but they were gone now, victims of a street paving project. She also remembered a porcupine getting under the house, and walking around the town alone as a young girl.
Chuck Heath visited with some of his students. When he saw Mark Knorr, he reminded him that “you owe me a book report,” Knorr said this week, admitting that he had been caught using “Classic Comics” excerpts for his report.
Neither Palin nor the Heaths responded to requests over the past two weeks for interviews. All such requests are now being run through the McCain-Palin campaign, and the governor and her parents are now being shielded.

1966 SHS Trail

Local reaction to the news on the street was universal surprise, and depending on the political stripe, ranged from pride for the local girl, to shock that someone of her experience would make such a huge jump, to glee at all the attention Alaska is getting (see Obama and Chamber stories in Sept. 12 issue).
Paul Taylor, a former student of Heath and now an active local Republican, said his reaction was “utter joy – my heart went to my throat, both for Sarah and her dad.”
Childhood friend Tim Cochran said Palin did a good job with her convention speech. “She’s an eloquent speaker…. A lot of people say she doesn’t have the experience, but she’s got a great deal of executive experience in local government and Alaska. She took on her own party in ethics. Of course, she was preaching to the choir (at the convention). But I think she will do well.”
Kathy Hosford said, “Sarah has the energy, character and outstanding ethical morals for the job. John McCain made the right choice. She comes from remarkable, hard-working respectful folks. She is a woman, she is an Alaskan and she IS TOUGH, not to mention smart, humble and approachable. For those just getting to know Sarah, prepare yourself for a breath of fresh air.”
Hosford added that her husband, Fred, a former student of Chuck Heath, was so “anxious to get on the campaign for Sarah that he cut her name from an old (running for governor) sign and used duct tape to attach it to his truck. Dyea style.”
Skagway of course could cash in on the tourism impact. The local bookstore, which is owned by this newspaper publisher, sold out of the book “Sarah” the day the news broke. Another case arrived two days later and sold out. And that was before the store was mentioned on NPR as one of the few places left in the country that still had the hardbound.

Gov. Palin with her daughter Piper and dad Chuck at a reception in Skagway in May 2007. Link here to story on Governor Palin's 2007 visit to Skagway. Skagway News file photo

Local entrepreneur Steve Hites said the impact and historic significance of the news hit home when he watched the Palin video from the convention which flashed a photo of the White Pass with the sign, “Welcome to Alaska, and the Gateway to the Klondike.”
Hites called it “big picture stuff, the biggest free marketing boost we have ever gotten that is positive,” and he loved her message that focused on Alaska’s resource development history, “which started with the Klondike Gold Rush and goes right through to today.”
“I don’t care what your politics are – this is the best thing that has ever happened to tourism in Alaska. The whole world is watching.”

RELATED EDITORIAL: Low in the weeds no more