Barbara D. Kalen
December 1924 – October 2011
Barbara Dedman Kalen was born curious. In fact, she called herself “the elephant’s child, because I am curious about everything.” That curiosity would take her across a spectrum of life interests, but she was rooted in Skagway, where she was loved by her family, community and people from around the world. She was one of those Skagway characters you will never forget.
Kalen died at her home on Oct. 11, 2011, listening to her favorite music. She was a couple months shy of her 87th birthday. Until her heart began to fail, she was the most active octogenarian, male or female, that this community has ever seen. She hiked, skied, swam, skated, and rode her bike well into her 80s, and then moved to a cart to get around and hit the local coffee shops.
This active life began on Dec. 10, 1924 in Skagway as the only child of Henry and Bessie Dedman. She spent her early childhood growing up in the family’s Golden North Hotel, which was run by her grandparents. She ate her meals there, which, by her own admission, spoiled her. She made the rounds with her grandmother Clara, watering plants and meeting travelers. Some would coax the young girl into games, but when the five-year-old lost money, she swore off gambling for the rest of her life. There were many other things that she tried and did well, including decorating her bike and riding it in the Fourth of July parade – a tradition she carried on until a couple years ago.
Her mother, Bessie, did not enjoy the hotel life. A lover of photography, she decided to start Dedman’s Photo Shop in 1923. The family lost the hotel in the depression, but the photo shop is now into its fifth generation as Skagway’s oldest family-owned business. Barb started by color-tinting postcards for her mom, receiving a nickel apiece, but she really learned the business as a teen during the World War Two years. Her mother had been called to Petersburg, so Barb was the one taking photos of the newly arrived GIs who came to town.
Barb would marry one of the soldiers, Ed Kalenkosky, who shortened his name to Kalen. She took him on hikes, including the old overgrown Chilkoot Trail in 1957, long before it was restored. And after they started a family, Barb took her four children everywhere.
“Please excuse my kids from school today,” she would say. “They are needed at home.” And then she would take advantage of the perfect snowfall before the south wind turned it to slush and give her kids their own “snow day.”
“Thanks, Mom. You brought us up knowing that sometimes play had to be a priority over work,” said her daughter, Betsy Albecker.
She relished a hike at any time of year and made sure all the kids became proficient with skates, skis, snowshoes, and oars, recalled her daughter, Barbie Kalen.
“In the summer, on a rare hot day, she’d drop everything to take herself and the kids swimming,” wrote Barbie. “And when her kids were grown up she would enlist her friend and cohort, Bea Lingle.”
When Barbie came home from Fairbanks, they would go on long hikes in the hills. There were also excursions to the family homestead, Kal’s Landing, off the Dyea Road.
At home and at work, Barb was a woman who could do just about anything: replace a chimney, pour cement, make fences, sew leather jackets, make jam, wallpaper a home or business, and do upholstery. She even learned how to take care of the horse that her husband brought home for the kids.
Her passion was the arts. Her creative side was best seen in her painting, knitting and music. She painted landscapes and railroad scenes to supplement her income, knitted or crocheted sweaters and hats, played the trumpet and autoharp, and sang. Barb and Oscar Selmer were the trumpet section in the old Days of ’98 Show, and they also serenaded the ships.
Jeff Brady, Skagway News
Her autoharp took her to the Alaska Folk Festival each year, where she played in the band, “Skagway Beach Picnic.” A few years after starting the Skagway Arts Council with Barbara Moore in 1974, she coaxed a number of musicians from the festival into coming to Skagway and Whitehorse. That was the start of the International Mini Folk Festival, held every April for the past 25 years. As a long-time president of the arts council, she also brought many musical acts to Skagway and played with them. Most of the concerts were held at the acoustics-friendly Presbyterian Church, where she was a deacon and elder.
Barb was an avid reader, storyteller and writer. She chronicled town life with her camera and notebook, sending news reports to regional newspapers about Skagway for many years. She covered everything from snowbound trains to the building of the highway. Thousands of photos by her mom and herself now make up the Dedman Collection that was purchased by the Skagway Museum a few years ago.
She also did not shy away from politics. She spent a couple terms on the Skagway City Council and Historic District Commission, where she protected the town’s parks and its historical appearance. A lifelong Democrat, she was not bashful about sharing her viewpoints on issues such as the Juneau road, which she opposed, and various national conservation issues, which she supported. Everything she believed in or opposed was on her little car, which was plastered with bumper stickers. It has been said that those stickers kept the vehicle together.
As a life-long naturalist, Barb enjoyed gardening, berry picking, photographing wildflowers, and just walking in the woods. When visitors from Iceland came to Skagway in 1955 looking for species of pine that might grow on their barren island, Barb and Kal knew where to go. Lodge pole pines grew up from the rocks in Yakutatnia Point Park. The Icelanders took some lodge pole cones home, and they were able to grow trees from the Skagway seeds. Afterward, Barb was hired by a Washington seed company under contract with the Iceland Forest Service to gather up bushels of cones every fall and ship them south.
“We’d find and sack enough to fill 30 to 40 burlap bags,” said Betsy. “Later we were sending both pine cones and fir cones.”
Barb hosted visitors from Iceland when they returned to Skagway. They treated her like a saint, and also hosted her twice in their country. Betsy accompanied her mom on one of the visits to see their success story. The cone shipments have declined in recent years, because the trees that started from Skagway cones are now big enough to produce their own seeds for harvest, and sustain an Icelandic forest.
She was honored for her “dedication to the arts and humanities and the preservation of Skagway’s scenic and historic resources” with a citation from the Alaska Legislature in 2007, which was presented to her in Skagway by former Governor Sarah Palin.
Barb was preceded in death by her husband, Ed Kalen, and son, Danny Kalen. She is survived by: a son, Patrick, of Fairbanks; daughters Barbie Kalen of Fairbanks, and Betsy Albecker of Skagway; grandchildren Mary, Carl, Averill, and Dale; and great-grandchildren Megan, Caden, Anna, Matthew, Danny, and Allison.
A memorial service will be held next June when the family gathers in Skagway.
– Compiled by Jeff Brady and the family.