My father died on the floor of his condominium in Anchorage, Alaska, feeling like a failure and full of self-pity. He did not deserve to feel like that, nor did he deserve to die without his family members beside him.
Reflection on life 062012 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly My father died on the floor of his condominium in Anchorage, Alaska, feeling like a failure and full of self-pity. He did not deserve to feel like that, nor did he deserve to die without his family members beside him.

Photo By Fred Koken

John Travis Compton and Allen Compton, late 1970s.

Amanda Compton sprinkles her father's ashes along Louise Beach north of Juneau. Photo taken by Gavin Denton.

Donna and Gavin Denton hold a photo of the Circuit Rider, a boat they owned with Allen Compton. Photo taken by Amanda Compton.

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Story last updated at 6/20/2012 - 2:02 pm

Reflection on life

My father died on the floor of his condominium in Anchorage, Alaska, feeling like a failure and full of self-pity. He did not deserve to feel like that, nor did he deserve to die without his family members beside him.

He was married three times, once in Boulder, Colo., once in Juneau, and once in Anchorage. All his marriages ended in divorce, and his health declined rapidly over the last decade of his life. He had heart disease and a white blood cancer, two sons in the Lower 48, and me, an inattentive daughter, living less than a mile away.

Truthfully, my father was difficult. He was meticulous, grumpy and prone to lengthy soliloquies, which were not to be interrupted.

A lot of this behavior magnified as his health declined, like a deterioration of self-respect and tenderness. His poor health coincided with my adult years. I have said out loud, and would like to believe, that after someone dies, his or her negative qualities are more difficult to conjure; it is their positive characteristics that linger. But as I matured, he deflated. As I became more aware, it was the behavior that characterized the last decade of his life with which I associate him.

And so I would like to write it was difficult - that I cried and was overwhelmed with a sense of loss - when I finally located the beach in front of the house he used to own in Juneau, and I tossed his ashes into the ocean a couple of days ago. But it was not that difficult, which seems hardly fair.

I knew my dad was well respected his entire life. I knew this, because through my teenage frustration I did take note that all of his friends and colleagues treated him with total and sincere revere.

My dad had this absolutely unique blend of sensitivity, objectivity and justice. This made him an uncontested, honest and skilled attorney and judge.

After graduating law school in 1963 from the University of Colorado in Boulder, my father, Allen Travis Compton, worked as a legal services attorney, assisting people with low incomes. He passed the Alaska Bar exam in 1971, and began his career in Alaska, working for Alaska Legal Services in Juneau.

He bought what was then considered more of a "summer house," on what is locally known as Louisa Beach, just north of the Auke Recreation area, north of the Juneau Ferry Terminal. Gavin and Donna Denton and their four daughters were his neighbors to the north, with whom he spent much time, brewing beer, playing pinnacle, and developing a strong friendship.

The Dentons, as do most of those that remember him, refer to my father as "Al," and they fondly remember his husky, Ilya. Ilya once snatched a deer Gavin had shot, that was hanging out on his porch. Ilya ate their zucchini plants. And Ilya took care of the litter of Siamese kittens one of his cats produced.

The Dentons and my father owned a 30-foot Fisher yacht together. They even went briefly into business together, selling Fisher boats in Alaska.

My father had been previously married in Colorado, and his son, John Travis, would visit during the summer. The Denton girls and Travis would play together on the beach.

After a couple years in private practice, my dad was appointed as a superior court judge by then-Gov. Jay Hammond in 1976. In 1978 he suffered his first heart attack. He first called the Dentons, and they were not home. He then called the next neighbor, Merrill Sanford, who is currently a candidate in the next Juneau mayoral election. The Dentons claim that had they been home, my father may have died, it was Sanford that saved his life.

"It was the luckiest thing ever that we weren't here," said Donna. "I'm pretty sure I would have ignored it and told him to take an aspirin."

But Sanford called the paramedics, who brought my dad up the 100 stairs from his house to the road.

Kelda Denton, Donna and Gavin's youngest daughter, remembers knowing something bad had happened the minute she walked into his house after the incident.

"The vacuum cleaner was out," she said. "I had never seen anything out of place in that house, ever."

My dad was meticulous. Everything was organized, by size, name, color. This drove many people crazy. As a young adult I used to switch the place of two books or rotate a potted plant, just to watch how quickly he noticed the displacement of his possessions and rearrange them.

I remember a story, but not who told it, about an incident following my father's heart attack. He had invited some friends and colleagues over for dinner, and served them a strict and plain diet, based on his cautious dietary concerns. The guests were less than enthused, and one of them later sliced up a head of raw cabbage, and stuffed one of his office desk drawers full of the vegetable.

Despite my father's often disciplined behavior (he had served six years in the Marine Corps Reserves), he was known for a quick wit, and great sense of humor. I remember him telling me how someone once filled the pitcher used for water on his courtroom bench with vodka. He had poured a glass in a full courtroom, and just before putting it to his lips, smelled the contents. Without breaking face, he glanced around, locating the culprit by his or her face. He then put down the glass, and resumed his duties.

My dad sold his house, a major heartbreak for him, shortly after he married Barbara Herman, who had been his law clerk. The couple moved to a home on Judy Lane, in the neighborhoods above Juneau-Douglas High School. The marriage lasted not longer than a couple of years.

In 1980, Gov. Hammond appointed my father to the Alaska Supreme Court. As a Supreme Court justice, he traveled to Anchorage more frequently. This is where, in 1982, he met my mother. My biological father had recently died, in 1981, when I was 19 months old. In the fall of 1983, Allen Compton moved to Anchorage with his Gordon setter, Nimrod, and Siamese cat, Kayruk. He moved into my mother's house in downtown Anchorage, and old log cabin previously used for bootlegging and prostitution, as well as owned by the late Sen. Ted Stevens. Allen Compton adopted me in 1984.

My dad served as Chief Justice to the high court from 1994 through 1997, the year my parents divorced. He moved to Girdwood, Alaska, until his health deteriorated to the point where he needed closer access to medical attention. He bought the condominium where he died in Anchorage shortly before his death, which occurred in the fall of 2008.

Last week, a year after I moved from Anchorage to Juneau, I was lucky enough to find Donna and Gavin Denton at the same house they have lived in since they were neighbors with my father. They pointed out the house my father used to live in, inevitably heavily remodeled.

Gavin helped me pry open the small metal urn I had brought, full of my father's ashes. He blazed a trail through the invasive giant knotweeds to the beach. I stood at the water's edge, sprinkling handfuls of the urn into the palm of my hand, and flinging it out into the water. I felt no bitterness towards the current owners of his former house, who have completely remodeled his old cabin into a structure resembling nothing like what it was in the 1970s. I didn't cry. I wanted to feel weightlessness. I did sense that he had felt more connected to that eighth of a mile of beachfront than he had to another place. I knew he loved that beach. It marked an era in his life when he was strong, when he felt fulfilled, and when he was happy. This is how I would like to remember him.

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