By Heather Lende
A firefighter’s sendoff would have pleased lifelong resident Pete Lapham. Lapham would have served 40 years in the Haines Volunteer Fire Department next month, 30 of them as captain of the Engine Company, where he operated trucks and trained volunteers. Lapham, 65, died at home Sunday night of cancer.
"Pete was overwhelmed with the love and the outpouring from this community since his illness. He just couldn’t believe it. He was so eternally grateful that he lived here, and that he had this family and these friends. He felt truly blessed," wife Diana Lapham said.
Lapham was foreman of an Alaska Department of Transportation crew when he retired after 32 years in October 2004. He operated the Saw Shop for decades, was a Polaris dealer, and for the past 20 years served as race director for the Alcan 200 snowmachine race, an event he competed in often and won in 1984. Friend Duck Hess said Lapham was "very competitive and he did his homework. He’d work pretty late getting the machine ready. He was a lot of fun to race against and with."
Former fire chief, co-worker and brother-in-law Roc Ahrens said, "He was a natural equipment operator. Some people have the knack, and some don’t. Pete was one of those ones who enjoyed what he did and was very good at it. He did it his whole life. A lot of people might think that’s boring, or old-fashioned, but it is experience that’s critical. Pete was an asset to the community."
He was the race director for the Yukon’s Thunder on Ice 500, a member of the Chilkat Snowburners, the Elks, and the American Legion, and a perennial contestant and organizer of the logging show at the fair.
When Lapham served on the Haines Borough Assembly from 2005-2008, former assemblyman Doug Olerud sat across from him. "It was nice to know you had somebody over there that was putting enough thought and research into it to make good decisions," Olerud said. He grew up near the Laphams. "Whenever you needed anything, Pete would drop whatever he was doing to help you."
"Pete always waved and smiled when his plow passed me on the highway," retired Klukwan School teacher Teresa Hura said, observing that all drivers probably got the same treatment. Diana said he preferred to take his five-mile walks on town streets, "because he could run into people and stop and talk."
He had bounce in his long stride, loved shiny Dodge trucks, fast snowmachines, sharp chain saws, and the flowers in his garden. His cat, "Trouble," was on the bed when he died. The two dogs were nearby.
Peter Kent Lapham was born in the Whitepass Hospital in Skagway on December 27, 1945 to Russell D. Lapham and Helen (Larson) Lapham of Haines. His father was a handyman and the family built and owned several restaurants. Pete drove log trucks in high school and played basketball before graduating from Haines High in 1964. He was drafted in 1969 when he was two credits shy of graduation from Western Washington University. He became an Army medic. After his discharge in 1971 he worked in the woods and drove log trucks to Fairbanks. He wed April Hooker in July 1972. In the winter of 1974 he was offered a temporary job with DOT clearing snow, which became permanent.
After his divorce, Lapham phoned his two sons in Washington regularly and made sure they came home often. "He’d say, ‘You’ve been here a week, now you go get a job,’" older son Michael, an Iraq War veteran, said. His father was very patriotic, especially when it came to democracy. "He called me in Iraq and asked, ‘Did you vote?’"
"Whatever Dad did, I wanted to," younger son Peter said, explaining his nickname "Re-Pete." Like his father, he works on a construction crew for the state of Washington. Peter said his father was like a grandfather to his partner Heather Reid’s two children.
Peter and Diana White of Sitka were married in Haines on Aug. 17, 1991. Pete helped raise her daughter, Krista Skannes. They renewed their vows in Hawaii in 2006.
In his "retirement" Lapham worked on the North Slope and for Northern Construction. Owner John Floreske said, "I think the utmost of him. Everybody who knew him did, what’s that saying? Maybe more people should try and be like him. He was a genuinely good individual."
He is survived by wife, Diana; children Michael of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Peter II of Olympia, Wa. and Krista Skannes of Juneau; sisters, Doris Bell and Diann Ahrens, of Haines; brother, Roger, of Anchorage; and three nieces and a nephew.
He was preceded in death by his parents, nephew Matt Bell and brother-in-law Clyde Bell.
Memorial donations may be made to the HVFD at P.O. Box 849.