Ever wondered about someone you pass on the sidewalk, see in the grocery store, or heard mentioned in stories? This is our attempt to track those people down, and grill them, lightly.
Will you be my friend? Suha Tokman 060513 AE 1 Capital City Weekly Ever wondered about someone you pass on the sidewalk, see in the grocery store, or heard mentioned in stories? This is our attempt to track those people down, and grill them, lightly.

Photo By Amanda Compton / Capital City Weekly

Suha Tokman, Sitka's character of a swimming instructor, smiles for a photo.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Story last updated at 6/5/2013 - 2:09 pm

Will you be my friend? Suha Tokman

Ever wondered about someone you pass on the sidewalk, see in the grocery store, or heard mentioned in stories? This is our attempt to track those people down, and grill them, lightly.

So many fabulously incredulous stories come out of the mouth of Sitka resident Suha Tokman it's hard to know what to believe. For the purposes of this profile and for the enjoyment of those that read it I will make note I am assuming everything nutty is fair game.

Many towns have their "thing," like tulips, Sand Hill Cranes, an airplane manufacturing plant. Sitka has swimming. It may have been a biased perspective, staying with the local swim coach, but it certainly appeared that everyone in Sitka swims or is related to someone who does.

"I coach the entire town, just about," Tokman said, from his apartment on the eighth floor of a downtown apartment complex with panoramic views from Thimbleberry Bay, west over Japonski Island and past Sitka Harbor.

Tokman is 58, from Turkey, and grew up swimming. He had an accident when he was 14 or 15. He suffered a brain concussion and his left side went numb. He then started coaching other children.

"I loved doing it," Tokman said. "A year later I could still swim. I swam and coached and never quit coaching. I ended up in Sitka in 1980. I didn't know how to speak English."

This is all true, but rather abridged. For example, Tokman's childhood, the story leading up to how he even got into swimming in the first place, is worthy of attention. He said his parents were the best. Why?

"They never touched us, spanked, beat, anything," he said. "They let us have our own opinions and choices."

Not harming him may not sound like grounds for parental awards, but Tokman was a prankster.

"We had nine fig trees and I would get up on one and get off on the ninth, like a monkey," Tokman said. "I grew up playing cowboys and Indians. I made swords out of wood. I was the knight. I would put the sword in my belt and just walk around."

He kept going.

"I played a bunch of tricks on people," Tokman said, quite devilishly. "We'd hide in trees and yell 'Taxi,' and they'd stop."

By night he would duct tape all the ringers on an apartment building and then run away, so that everyone would get out of bed, turn on their lights and answer the door.

"We'd watch all the apartment lights go on," he said. "I was a big trouble maker."

And then there was the time he won a horse, when he was seven. He lived in the middle of Istanbul. He said the city maintained an area around a soccer field nearby as a field to grow and transplant flowers.

"I started riding my horse in that area and one day a kid asked me to ride it and I said, "OK, for a couple of bucks." I started renting it. I had my own business. But I was always late to dinner so my dad sold the horse and he signed me up for swimming."

Tokman swam through high school, and said he always wanted to come to the United States because of his heritage. He said that one of his great-great grandfathers was an American Indian who was captured by French hunters in the 1840s and sold to a circus in France. His act was to just be an Indian.

"He somehow escaped and ended up in Bosnia," Tokman said.

He married and made a career out of building roads, which he taught to his sons, and they taught to their sons, including Tokman's grandfather. According to Tokman, his grandfather was sent to Turkey for a road project. He returned to Bosnia to gather his family. His grandmother insisted on traveling by land, a fortuitous choice as the boat his grandfather was on sunk, and his grandmother arrived in Turkey a widow, with two boys, one of whom was Tokman's father.

Tokman said his father, who had been a navy officer, quit to work in his grandfather's chocolate shop, ("The one and only chocolate in all Balkan countries at that point," he said).

And so, with Native American blood pulsating through his veins Tokman took note of a catalogue, one day in May 1980, in a friend's apartment, promoting Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

"There was a beautiful picture on the front, a sunny day, flowers," Tokman said.

He had his friend, who spoke English well, call the college that very day, pretending to be Tokman. He was told that as long as he could pay the tuition, he could enroll.

"Two months later I was Sitka," Tokman said. "I was 23."

While figuring out how to speak English, Tokman also worked on getting the college's broken pool filtration system up and running, or, rather, submerged and running. Tokman said he eventually helped persuade the college to build a new pool.

Tokman returned to Turkey in the summer after his first year in Sitka, got married, and brought his wife back. After seven years they had a son, Tolga.

"One day (my wife) said, 'It's me or Sitka.' So we moved to Medford, Ore.," Tokman said, where he had secured a swim coaching job. But his wife didn't enjoy Medford either, and returned to Istanbul in 2000.

In 2006, when Tolga graduated high school, Tokman went back to Istanbul to care for his aging mother. After six years, his former coaching job in Sitka became available. Tolga, who had been living in Colorado Springs, was ready for a move too. They returned in May 2012.

"I'm as enthusiastic and as energetic as the first day I started here," Tokman said. "I just love Sitka kids. They're very nice."

Tokman loves to cook, and one of his dreams is to open a restaurant.

"Turkish food is very unique," he said. "My grandma died when she was 104. She read the Koran every day, and lived on olive oil, yogurt and lemon."

So if Tokman continues to whittle his way into the Sitka community, expect to see a large portion of the population over 100 years old, with webbed appendages.

Amanda Compton is the staff writer at Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at