Willard E. Dunham Residence Hall

Beverly Dunham unveils a plaque in honor of her late husband, Willard E. Dunham, at the rechristened Willard Eugene Dunham Residence Hall on Friday.

Beverly Dunham unveils a plaque in honor of her late husband, Willard E. Dunham, at the rechristened Willard Eugene Dunham Residence Hall on Friday.

The Alaska Vocational Technical Center celebrated its 50th anniversary over the weekend, attracting a junket of state dignitaries led by Governor Mike Dunleavy. The governor appeared Friday at a bill signing that marked the official renaming of AVTEC’s Third Avenue dormitory in honor Willard E. Dunham.

In addition to the bill signing, the weekend event included celebratory meals and a tour of AVTEC for the public and visiting officials. 

At least three members of the Alaska Legislature – Sen. Peter Micciche and Representatives Chris Tuck and Gabrielle LeDoux – came to Seward, as did the three top officials from the Department of Labor and Workforce Develoment: Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter and Deputy Commissioners Cathy Muñoz and Nelson San Juan.

Friday’s bill signing featured short addresses from a number of the visitors and from Dunham’s widow, Beverly Dunham, who was introduced by master of ceremonies Tom Tougas.

“We’re here to honor 50 years of AVTEC and 50 years of dedication to AVTEC by Willard Dunham,” Tougas said. “People who can fix things are the most valuable people in today’s society. 

“AVTEC is important to Alaska,” he went on. “That was one thing that Willard always understood. He and Bev were always AVTEC’s biggest cheerleaders. Bev spent most of her life making Seward a better place to live [and] through ownership of the [Seward Phoenix-Log] newspaper Bev and Willard were great cheerleaders for Seward.”

Beverly Dunham addressed the crowd of approximately seventy-five, telling the story of how her husband successfully lobbied to have the Alaska Skills Center, as AVTEC was first known, located in Seward.

She began with a piece of Dunham apocrypha – it has been said that Dunham good-naturedly kidnapped then-governor Keith Miller during a visit to Seward – which she said was indeed close to the truth. 

“In 1969, when Gov. Keith Miller was scheduled to visit, Willard saw an opportunity to lobby him,” Beverly Dunham recalled. “He took it upon himself to take the governor aside to plead Seward’s case. In true gangster style he took him for a ride.”

Willard Dunham, having separated the governor from his minders, including an Alaska State Trooper, took him on an automotive tour around Seward, she said, before returning him to his “miffed Trooper.”

A short time later, Dunham learned that Seward had been chosen as the site for the Skills Center and that he was the Department of Labor’s pick to be the first manager. That first year, the Center took on 88 trainees from over forty villages, who spent their time repairing donated surplus equipment, according to Beverly Dunham.

Dunham was also remembered by Sen. Peter Micciche, the sponsor of the bill to rename the dormitory in Dunham’s honor.

“When they brought me the bill, I was so proud to carry it,” Micciche said. “[Dunham] was in many ways my mentor. The thing I liked about Willard was, he called me sometimes when I did something he liked. But he called me every time I did something he didn’t agree with.”

Micciche introduced Gov. Mike Dunleavy who, after a short address, signed the bill and stood for photographs with Beverly Dunham, the senator and others.

“Renaming this Third Avenue dormitory will stand as a reminder of [Dunham’s] dedication to the city of Seward,” Dunleavy said. “We need to continue training people. There will always be a need for folks that can build things, fix things, do things. And this building is a cornerstone in Alaska for that education.”