On Saturday, July 30, a gathering of more than 100 people at Twin Lakes proved the exception to this rule. People came from all over Alaska to honor Mildred Austin Jack, fondly known as 'Mom' or 'Aunt Milly' to many of the appreciative crowd.
"Aunt Milly came from a family of four girls and one boy, and when two of her sisters passed away, she took in their children and raised them as hers," explained Carolyn Noe, who joined Milly's family at the age of 12 after her parents and grandparents were killed in a boating accident.
"She didn't want to split us up, so she took all six of us Jackson kids in."
Jack also took in the four children of her sister, Mina Carteeti, when she passed away. Though she was already raising three boys of her own, she welcomed all of the children into her home in Hoonah, as well as two more daughters from a second marriage. "There were always at least 13 kids around, and we were really close," said Noe of growing up as part of a crowd. "Aunt Milly was very strict, but very loving. The responsibility had to be overwhelming, but she sailed right through it."
Though she was still quite young, Jack didn't hesitate when she saw that the children were in need. "I just couldn't see the kids being separated-I knew that they should stay together," she said. "It was bad enough that they had already lost their parents; we couldn't uproot them from their home."
In addition to raising 15 children, Milly also worked for years to support the family, beginning as a part-time city clerk after graduating from high school. "After that I worked as a Head Start teacher director for about 14 years, and then for LAB as a supervising agent in Hoonah," she said. She was also employed by Tlingit-Haida as a social worker, and worked part-time for ANB.
All of the family members had chores, including putting up food to support themselves, and Jack said that they never wanted for anything. "I remember back about 45 years ago, social workers would come into Hoonah and knock on the door and say, 'if you need help, we can put you on welfare,'" she recollected. "And I said, 'as long as I'm young and strong, I'll work to support my family.' And I did."
Jack's incredible work ethic and dedication to her children was recognized at the celebration with a citation by the Alaska State Legislature that commended her for all of her accomplishments. "It talked about all of her jobs, and how she'd given up her life to raise all of us," said Noe. "It even named all of the children."
Even more important to Jack was a traditional Tlingit vest made by Noe, which featured a beaded eagle, a Japanese design on the lining and a wolf crest that was designed especially for Andrew Jackson's memorial potlatch. "It was overwhelming," Jack said of the keepsake that honored Noe's brother who drowned in 1998. "I was very choked up."
According to Noe, tears flowed freely at the event that took its honored guest completely by surprise. "The girls had called me and said that they wanted to have a family reunion in Juneau," Jack explained. "I thought that was odd, because we always had lived in Hoonah. But when we got there, I was so surprised. So happy."
So was Noe, who had fervently hoped that no one would reveal the secret before it was time. "I can't believe that she didn't hear anything about it, though I did threaten people within an inch of their lives," she laughed. "It was difficult because Aunt Milly was giving me a hard time about why we wouldn't hold a family reunion in Hoonah since that's where we're all from. But everyone finally convinced her that she should come to Juneau."
When she got to the reunion, Jack was honored with a performance by the dance group, Yeis Ku Oo'. "I got on the microphone and announced that it was 'Mildred Austin Jack Day,' and Aunt Milly just kept saying, 'It's Me Day?'" recalled Noe. "It was a very emotional moment; I couldn't look at her or my sisters or my cousins because we were all crying so hard."
Though Jack was celebrated for her dedication to her family, she believes that she didn't do anything that her sisters wouldn't have done. "If I had gone before them, they would have raised my kids," she said with assurance. "They would have done the same thing for me."
And she knows that they would have been happy with how their children turned out. "When I got back from Juneau, I looked at all of the kids' pictures on my wall, and I thought, 'they are all so good,'" said Jack. "They all did me proud. My sisters would be so proud."