The top floor of the Alaska SeaLife Center could hardly contain more people as a couple hundred citizens of Seward, Moose Pass and elsewhere gathered Saturday to honor a man who left his mark on virtually every major development in the history of modern Seward.
After decades as an advocate for Seward, Willard Dunham passed away on March 1 of an unexpected illness, the family said. Dunham was born Oct. 28, 1930, in Billings, Mont., but spent the rest of his life after age 12 in Alaska, most of it here in Resurrection Bay where he had been everything from longshoreman to newspaperman, community booster to politician.
A former mayor of Seward, Dunham had a long record of pushing for projects that would change the face of Seward. Dunham and his wife Beverly, to whom he was married for 67 years, founded the Seward Phoenix-Log in the years after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. He was a motive force behind the Alaska Skills Center, which would become the Alaska Vocational Technical Center and a founding and longest-serving board member of the Alaska SeaLife Center. At 80, he was mayor.
Seward, those who spoke at the service seemed to say, would not have been the same if it had not been for this man, who, in the crucible of a natural disaster that nearly wiped his town from the map, transformed himself into an inexhaustible force for development and example of public service.
“As I prepared for today, I thought about the great Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is all about how different a little town would have been without George Bailey,” said Master of Ceremonies Tom Tougas. “It made me think about Seward without Willard Dunham.”
The tributes rolled in, first from Bruce Jaffa, Dunham’s friend of 44 years; then from Darryl Schaefermeyer, one of Willard’s first conscripts in the fight to build the Alaska SeaLife Center; then from his son Kevin, who remembered his dad as a busy working man, holding down two or three jobs, all while remaining a consummate father, full of care and good humor; and on and on.
“It was common for our pioneers to know one another and work together. Willard knew and engaged at times with them all,” Jaffa said. “His calls were answered by the likes of Hammond, Miller, Hickel, Eagan, Stevens and others. He knew and had dealings with all our elected officials, businessmen and more. He was at home and comfortable dealing with anyone, whether they were plumbers or potentates. What mattered was that he wanted something for his town – and he planned to get it.”
“As has been said here, we can’t imagine what Seward would be today without the life and contributions of Willard,” said Schaefermeyer. “Seward today stands as a monument to the good works of Willard Dunham. The Alaska SeaLife Center is here as a monument of his devotion to Seward. Every time I look down Fourth Avenue and see this wonderful facility I give thanks to Willard.”
“Was there anything in Seward that Willard wasn’t involved in?” asked former mayor Jean Bardarson in a video that she sent to be played at the service. “I don’t think so.”
Many who spoke also credited Dunham with changing the course of their lives – and laughed remembering his idiosyncrasies, like calling everyone “kiddo.”
“He introduced me to the idea of public service,” said former assistant city manager Ron Long. “You don’t have to be against something to be a good public servant, he told me. You can be for something, you can be proactive.”
“I became kiddo this, kiddo that,” Long said of his time getting to know Dunham. “And one time, he said, ‘Well, what are we going to do about it, chum?’ I went from being ‘kiddo’ to being ‘chum.’ I knew I had arrived.”
AVTEC Director Cathy LeCompte said Dunham had been similarly influential for her.
“Willard was my champion. He took me under his wing and said, ‘Kiddo, here’s how it goes!” LeCompte said. Dunham’s influence extends far beyond Seward, LeCompte added, because of his role jump-starting the institution that she now leads. “There are hundreds of thousands of Alaskans in this state and beyond who have jobs, who are working, because they came to AVTEC.”
In his last days, Dunham did not stop up thinking about the community of Seward, to which he had given so much, Schaefermeyer said.
“During my last visit with Willard, he was still planning for Seward’s future.”