PUBLISHED: 1:38 PM on Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Great Natives who have touched a life

Photo by Skip Gray
  Peter Metcalfe spends time taking photographs.
In the 1950s, radio played a big part in my young life. For at least a decade longer than in the Lower 48, radio was the principal medium of entertainment for the people of Southeast.

For my father, Vern Metcalfe, it was his way of breaking into journalism. Dad was trained in the sheet metal trade, but he aspired to be a writer and a broadcaster.

He started out broadcasting local basketball games in the late 1940s, and followed the successful teams to the apex of basketball in Southeast Alaska, the annual Gold Medal Tournament.

The tournament, a production of the Juneau Lions Club, attracts city league basketball talent from villages and towns around Southeast Alaska and beyond. As much a social gathering as it is about basketball, the Gold Medal is hugely popular with Alaska Natives of the region - as any onlooker can tell by the thunderous enthusiasm village fans express for their teams.

The "golden age" of radio in Southeast Alaska corresponded with the glory days of the Gold Medal Basketball Tournaments. Many old-timers, upon learning that Vern Metcalfe was my dad, have recalled for me Gold Medal basketball games broadcast by my father more than 50 years ago.

Photo by Peter Metcalfe
  Ivan Gamble, Sr., in 1985.
Invariably, the most exciting games recalled featured Robert "Jeff" David, one of my father's closest friends and one of the standout athletes of the region. Gold Medal historian Gil Truitt of Sitka claims the brightest stars of the tournament were Jeff, Herb Didrickson and Moses "Mighty Mo" Johnson.

"After 53 years, I have not seen their equal," he wrote in the 2000 program. The three were among the first inductees to the Gold Medal Hall of Fame.

My father's close friendship with Jeff was the only introduction I needed to get to know the basketball hero. When very young, it is difficult to assess certain qualities in an adult, but I understood that that Jeff David treated me as a person, not as a child. In addition to being handsome and friendly, he radiated a charismatic quality no photo can capture.

In the early 1980s, a few years before he died prematurely of heart disease, I had the opportunity to work with Jeff. He was a fluent Tlingit speaker, and I was producing a video documentary of an early Celebration, the biannual event that brings together Native people of the region in celebration of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. I remember Jeff's keen insights of the people we were videotaping, and his deep knowledge of Native culture and language. But most of all, I recall his enthusiasm and good humor. To this day, I can still hear his cheerful voice saying, "Hey partner, how's it going?"

Photo by Peter Metcalfe
  Ethel Lund carries the Olympic Torch in February 2002.
One of the people who told me of listening to my father's Gold Medal broadcasts was Ivan Gamble. Ivan and I first became acquainted in the early 1980s when he was president of Kootznoowoo Inc., the Angoon ANCSA corporation.

Ivan was deeply intelligent, forward thinking, generous to a fault, and on his way to becoming one of the great leaders of the region, if not the state.

Then, unbelievably, he was killed at the age of 37 in a two-car collision in the early morning hours of June 21, 1986. It was a tragic irony: Ivan, who never drank alcohol, whose only bad habit was drinking Coca-Cola, killed by a drunk driver. Ivan's many accomplishments were impressive, but it was his quality of leadership that stood out.

Once, after representing an association of Angoon homeowners in a funding dispute, he returned from Juneau defeated and admitted as much in a community meeting. Ivan could have blamed others, or the situation, or the lack of funding, but he blamed himself.

For the next two hours elders stood to his defense, held him up, and praised his efforts. The great leader that he was, Ivan served by example, conducted himself with modesty, and spoke highly of others, not of himself.

When Ivan died, people from across the country joined Angoon in the mourning, all of us sharing the bitter experience of having such a promising individual struck down and eliminated from our lives.

Among the greatest people I have had the pleasure of knowing is Ethel Lund, who remains active in public policy issues, especially those important to the health of all Alaskans.

She helped found, and for nearly 30 years led, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, today the largest health care organization in the region.

Ethel has always impressed me as a well-grounded, happy person, and like so many of her friends, I thought I knew her well.

As it turned out, I did not know her half so well as I thought. While researching the history of SEARHC, I interviewed Ethel several times and was astounded to learn how difficult her life has been.

While some of this was in confidence, episodes of her life are revealed in "Gumboot Determination: the Story of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium," published this spring. The title reflects the spirit Ethel infused within the organization she helped create. Like the humble mollusk, the gumboot, she and her colleagues did the work that needed to be done with little fanfare, often under extremely adverse circumstances.

"Gumboot determination" became SEARHC's motto and a phrase personified by Ethel Lund.

Fortunately, the people of Juneau have had the good sense to honor Ethel's contributions with an honorary doctorate bestowed by the University of Alaska Southeast in 2001, by designating her as one of the bearers of the Olympic torch in February 2002, and recognizing her as a "Woman of Distinction" in 2003.

That I came to know Jeff David, Ivan Gamble, Ethel Lund and so many other great Alaska Natives had much to do with the fact that I was the son of Vern Metcalfe, a man who loved people and sports. Through basketball and the Gold Medal Tournament, he met people from every town and village in Southeast Alaska.

When Vern Metcalfe broadcast a game, the listeners learned not only about the athletes, but also about their families, friends and communities. In his day, his refusal to even acknowledge racial distinctions was not lost on Alaska Natives.

He opened the door that I walked through.