Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Menaker taught by example, launched local efforts


June 10, 2010

A memorial will be held 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Haines Assisted Living for Vivian Menaker, a 55-year Haines resident, teacher and conservationist who helped establish Chilkat Valley Preschool and Haines Headstart.

Menaker died of heart disease and cancer June 1 at the HAL facility. She was 90.

"She was a teacher. She taught children, and then she taught the community about recycling and conservation. She taught by example by living a valuable life," said friend Doris Ward. "She was a good influence on the community."

Menaker was born April 14, 1920 in Salem, Ore. to Clayton Jones, an upholsterer, and his wife Charlotte, a teacher. She spent childhood summers at a grandfather’s farm nearby and put herself through Willamette College by stoning peaches at a canning factory.

A short, unsuccessful marriage left her with a young son and a life in San Francisco teaching during and after World War II. She met Ray Menaker while both were teaching at Las Lomitas School in Menlo Park. There they worked under an inspiring superintendent who moulded their skills and attitude toward education.

They married on Valentine’s Day in 1949, more because it was a school holiday than for its romantic connotations, said daughter Terry Lambert.

Ray adopted Vivian’s son David and the couple had two more children, Allen and Terry, by December 1951. They had a house built near San Francisco. Ray studied at Stanford University in the morning and baby-sat afternoons while Vivian taught school and baby-sat in the morning.

When their superintendent retired, they packed their three children, a cat and two kittens into a car and drove north for six weeks on the advice of a Stanford friend who said teachers were needed in the Alaska Territory. They passed through Haines on the way to teaching in Pelican and returned a year later, securing jobs with the school district here.

They bought land in 1956 and built a log cabin from foundation to roof with the help of neighbors.

Vivian taught fourth grade and first grade, retiring in 1974. Later that year, she mentored college student Jan Hill and the pair started the town’s first Headstart program, combining it with a loosely-stuctured preschool that had been operating.

"Part of the challenge was convincing the community a preschool was needed. That was a new idea at that time. Some people didn’t even send their kids to kindergarten. I feel we were really breaking new ground," said Hill, who served as the school’s first teacher and today is borough mayor.

"We went to city council meetings to get use of the (Human Resource) building. We did surveys to determine need. We recruited volunteers. We painted and fixed up the buildings. A casual conversation became these two programs we still have today," Hill said.

While teaching, Menaker combined a requirement to update her teaching credentials every five years with travel, spending summers studying in Mexico City and France, and adding travel to Japan and the Soviet Union to visit kindergartens and elementary schools.

Her lifetime travels included a trip to China, a number of them to England to visit daughter Terry and ones to Fairbanks to see son Allen.

On a 1972 sabbatical, she taught at primary schools in England for six months. A trip to New Zealand in the 1980s inspired a lasting fascination with all aspects of spinning, knitting, weaving and sewing. Her demonstration of working raw wool to a finished product was a fixture at the Southeast Alaska State Fair for decades.

Menaker worked wool projects around other home endeavors including gardening, canning, baking and raising chickens and pigs. In recent years, she taught younger generations about organic gardening in Alaska and how to compost.

"She was kind of a mentor to a lot of people getting back to gardens. Now, 30 years later, we’re getting back into that type thing," said next-door neighbor Gail Gilbert.

The Gilberts and Menakers shared a pair of shears and Vivian would stop by once a month to give Gilbert’s husband, Bruce, a haircut. "Once a month, for how many years, they’d have their beauty shop and then talk politics late into the night after they were done their haircutting," Gilbert said.

Longtime friend Dick Folta said Menaker was one of the charter members of Lynn Canal Conservation in 1971 and worked hard to get protected status for bald eagles along the Chilkat River when the cause was not popular. She won awards for her conservation work, including recognition during the 25th anniversary of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

"She was a tough-love lady. She didn’t put up with any nonsense. She was practical," Folta said.

Menaker also played piano by ear and was a square-dancer. "She was quite a ukulele player, before the ukulele was cool," Folta said. Mayor Hill was among those Menaker taught to play the ukulele.

Vivian Menaker is survived by husband Ray, son Allen of Fairbanks, daughter Terry Lambert of Cumbria, England and by nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren and by seven nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by sister Dorothy and by her son, David.

Condolences may be sent to Ray Menaker at HAL, Box 916, Haines, AK 99827.