PUBLISHED: 6:02 PM on Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The Vern McCorkle story
Famed Alaskan publisher steps away from writing to battle cancer and seems to have 'beaten the odds'
Vern McCorkle's first publishing attempts were done on an old Underwood typewriter, pilfered from his father's office and smuggled into his bedroom.

The cub reporter/publisher banged out a few graphs detailing such local events as who was selling Kool-Aid and graham crackers in their yards or announcing the births of several new pet bunnies. He'd make copies and pass them around to his buddies on the block.

  Vern McCorkle
He was 9 years old.

More than six decades later, McCorkle is the co-founder and publisher of Alaska Business Monthly magazine. The technology and the audience have changed over the years, but McCorkle's goal of writing, informing and shaping news - particularly Alaska's business news - has not.

"I always enjoyed putting words on paper," he said. "In business, particularly in Alaska, you can see where we came from. It changes all the time. Business has always been most exciting to me."

For the past year, McCorkle has put his word-smithing aside to fight a battle against pancreatic cancer.


McCorkle was born in Washington state in 1934. He and younger brother, Barry, grew up on land that is now owned by Microsoft Corp.

His father, Harold McCorkle, worked as the town doctor, while his mother, Patricia, was a nurse. Together they operated Redmond's first medical clinic.

"Every night at dinner, we always discussed what the medical profession owed the general population," McCorkle said. "We'd talk about people in dire straits and needed some extra help."

Back then, Redmond was small-town America. Population 636, it housed a couple of grocery stores, a bakery and a blacksmith shop.

"All the people who lived there took care of all the kids," he said. "If a kid did something wrong, they were told on. Grandma Swan had cookies, so we all visited her."

It was here that McCorkle took his first turn at writing, when he'd snatch the Underwood his dad used to write out prescriptions to write the neighborhood stories. In junior high school, he worked for the school newspaper, the Redmond Recorder, focusing on society news. He was later promoted to sports writer. He never had a formal education in journalism.

His life could have turned out much different. McCorkle was 13 years old when his parents died. His mother had a series of incidents. She broke her back, then contracted undulant fever and polio. His father died shortly after her.

McCorkle and his brother were a day away from being sent to an orphanage when their Aunt Flora and Uncle Edgar Slaughenhaupt came to take them to their home. They spent the rest of their childhood on the family's mink and ox farm in Castle Rock, Wash.

"We were very lucky," McCorkle said. "They scooped us up, took us out of there and gave us a home."

Reporting sports and space

During his high-school years, McCorkle ventured into radio, working at KRKL in Kirkland, Wash. From 1950 to 1952, he and friends Kathryn Yelton and Donna Lee Huton performed comedy skits on the air. A favorite character was sportscaster Scoots Lateral. The skits were picked up by KING in Seattle.

He went on to work at KLOG radio, and was a headline writer for the high school paper the Longview Daily.

McCorkle joined the Navy in the mid-1950s, working in operations as a code clerk - listening to the Morse code signals from Russian ships. The Cold War was underway, with skirmishes in Budapest, Hungary and Suez.

He was stationed for a time at the Kodiak Naval Station, now the Coast Guard base, and was asked to write for the station's newspaper.

"The wives there loved me," McCorkle said. "I was always invited to dinner. They were hoping I'd say something nice about them and their husbands, which I always did."

An assistant junior officer he helped supervise the building of the first television station in Alaska, called AFRTS. McCorkle announced to Alaskans the news that Hungarian Prime Minister Imry Nagy was overthrown.

After he was discharged, McCorkle moved to Wenatchee, Wash., and worked for KMEL radio. That station held to rigid time slots, allowing for only five-minute newscasts, including two local events.

But when the Sputnik launched Oct. 4, 1957, McCorkle continued his live broadcast.

"The station manager at the time, Mark Sorley, called up mad. 'What are you doing?' I said, this is a big deal," McCorkle said. "The next day, the newspaper had a story that KMEL broadcast the Sputnik last night. And boy he changed his tune, and I got a raise."

Radio was a glamorous occupation in those days, McCorkle said.

"If you were on the radio, did news, you were recognized everywhere," he said. "My last cast was at midnight. I'd go downtown to a restaurant or coffee shop, I couldn't buy a cup of coffee or a doughnut. People were always buying for you. Course, you couldn't do that now."

City manager topublisher

McCorkle has written in some form of media for most of his life. He wrote for Dan Rather and Charles Kuralt. He represented Southwest U.S. weeklies as pool reporter in Henry Kissinger's Rawalpindi days.

He became editor of the Alcoa News, a slick, company publication distributed in 27 countries where ALCOA had bauxite and smelting operations.

In 1958, McCorkle came to Alaska, and worked as city manager in the communities of Haines, Nenana, Anderson and St. Paul, among others. He continued his writing efforts, publishing newsletters accounting on city events.

One good thing about working in rural Alaska is that there's no place to spend your money, he said. So after years of saving, McCorkle teamed up with Tony and Carol Smith to found Alaska Business Publishing in 1985. McCorkle was the company president, while Carol Smith was the publisher.

Alaska's economy wasn't doing well at the time, but the publication persevered. McCorkle took over as publisher in 1992, after Tony Smith stepped down in a failed bid for senate.

Alaska Business Monthly is now among the most widely distributed magazines in the state.

Other Alaska works

McCorkle never forgot those family discussions at the dinner table encouraging him to help those in need.

He worked over the years to feed the elderly, care for the homeless. He served as a long-term care ombudsman until he got sick. He was a founder of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, served on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Commission, and on the deans committee and chair of the business school at University of Alaska Anchorage, among others.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July 2007, McCorkle has stepped down from much of his writing efforts, focusing instead on getting well. He has gone through several rounds of treatments. He has lost weight, but has kept his hair despite the rounds of chemo and radiation.

And through it all, McCorkle has maintained his signature upbeat enthusiasm and that sparkle in his eye.

"All the doctors say I have beat the odds," he said.

Melissa Campbell is the managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce.