PUBLISHED: 3:21 PM on Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Two of a kind
Women's efforts enrich Alaska

Photo courtesy of Ron Klein
  Bea Shepard, left, and Claudia Kelsey came to Juneau in 1946.
In November of 2006, Beatrice L. Shepard and Claudia Kelsey will mark their 60th year in Alaska.

And though they were not originally from the 49th state, these two women have certainly left an indelible mark on the Last Frontier.

"These ladies were well ahead of their time-they were liberated long before women ever thought about women's lib," said the Rev. Ron Covey, now retired from the Douglas Community United Methodist Church.

"They are a couple of wonderful Christian ladies who have never been afraid to tackle anything."

Anything and everything. Just some of the projects that the two women have been involved in include the creation of the Eagle River United Methodist Camp, the publication of two books and the teaching of Sunday school lessons to hundreds of local children.

Shepard also worked for the Department of Health for more than 31 years, in addition to serving as a lobbyist for Alaska's museums.

Kelsey, a well-respected artist and illustrator, helped to create the Artists in our Schools program as well as the SeaWeek program, and has had her work displayed in books and in collections all over the state.

Courtesy photo
  Bea Shepard, left, and Claudia Kelsey, right, with a friend from California in 1956 on a ferry trip to Haines.
"Everybody knows them-they have been involved in so much in the community for so long," said Maureen Weeks.

Weeks said she has known the women since she was a child and remembers Kelsey drawing pictures on her lunchbox.

"It's hard to put into words how they are-they are just truly remarkable people."

Shepard, 86, and Kelsey, 93, first came to Juneau in 1946 from South Pasadena because, Shepard says, she was tired of dealing with traffic.

"I lived on one side of Los Angeles, and worked on the other, and the roads were not well-engineered back then," she said.

"It took 20 minutes to drive one block."

After seeing an advertisement in a medical journal about jobs in Alaska, Shepard wrote to the Commissioner of Health describing her qualifications.

"I got a telegraph back saying, 'How soon can you come?'" she laughed.

"Within a month, we were here. And we liked it enough to stay."

Shepard, who had been working for the Los Angeles County Health Department, took a job with the Territorial Department of Health.

Kelsey, who had been working for the Church of All Nations while in Los Angeles, began work as a parish provider for the Juneau and Douglas Methodist churches.

"We started work one day, and the next day we were singing at choir practice," Shepard said.

The women have stayed extremely involved in church activities, with Shepard even taking a correspondence course to become a licensed preacher.

She served as pastor of the Douglas Methodist Church from 1970-75.

"Bea taught disciple Bible studies at the church, and her teaching became quite addictive," Covey said.

"Two of her students had to relocate, but because they wanted to continue their sessions with her, we had to set up conference calls so that they could take part. They just enjoyed her class so much."

Many generations of Juneauites have gotten to enjoy another result of Shepard and Kelsey's dedication to the church as well.

In 1954, a small group of church members decided that the church needed a camp and established the Eagle River United Methodist Camp outside Juneau.

Despite the fact that there was no bridge to cross Eagle River to survey the land, the group wasn't deterred.

Shepard, Kelsey and Dorothy Ann Rings hitched a ride on the back of Pastor Bob Rings to get across the silty water.

This was not the women's first foray into the wilds of Alaska, however. In 1951, the women got involved in the research for the book "Wild, Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska," which was written by Christine Heller.

"Christine got a grant from the Air Force to write the book, which would be used by pilots who had been shot down and needed to live off the land," Shepard said.

"I represented the Health Department on the project and Claudia was the artist-we traveled all over Alaska for several months doing the research."

In addition to her contributions to that book, Shepard was also the first person to analyze various Alaskan berries and fruit to determine their Vitamin C content and to publish a series of assays on her findings.

Through the years, Shepard also developed a love of photography, which led her and Kelsey to the publication of another book in 1986, "Have Gospel Tent Will Travel: the Methodist Church in Alaska since 1886."

Her love of history also landed her on the board of the General Commission of Archives and History and as the editor of its newsletter, as well as on the board of Museums Alaska.

"I got in involved in the museum world during the bicentennial, when the ministerial association asked me to do an exhibit about religion and churches in Juneau," Shepard said.

"I became a member of the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, and served as their delegate to the Museums Alaska annual meeting. For many years, I served as the chairman of advocacy on their board, traveling all over the state and lobbying for all of Alaska's museums. That was a big part of my life."

When at rest, which is rare, the two women live in a house in Auke Bay that they built from the ground up.

"I drew up the plans, we cleared the land and we built it. The only labor we hired was to have a crawl space dug with a backhoe. We did the rest ourselves with the help of about 50 friends," said Shepard, who did all of the electrical and plumbing work herself.

"I have to say that when I flipped the switch and the lights came on, I was pretty surprised."

Though both women have tried to slow down a bit as they got older, they still keep very busy with church work and various other projects.

"They continue to amaze me," said Covey. "They are always open to new learning, and to hear new ideas."

"All I can say is that they have enriched my life," Weeks said. "I feel that I am very, very lucky to know them."

As, it seems, is Alaska.