Harriett Lawrence Jurgeleit, the first Southeast Alaska Fair executive director, died peacefully at Haines Assisted Living on Aug. 1. She was 89 years old and had cancer. A memorial will be held 1 p.m. Saturday at the fairgounds hall that bears her name.
“Harriett was a delight. Even dealing with the difficulties she had at the end, she kept a great sense of humor and was always curious about local, state, and national news,” said friend Carol Flegel.
Harriett Lawrence was born in Wichita, Kansas, on Dec. 12, 1922, the youngest of three children born to Harry and Bertha Lawrence. Her father operated lumberyards in Kansas and Oklahoma and the family spent summers in a cabin in Woodland, Colo.
Harriett and sister Laura came to Haines in 1938 to visit aunt Harriett “Hattie” Lawrence, administrator for Haines House, a Presbyterian-run Native orphanage.
Laura went home in the fall, but Harriett spent her junior year of high school in Haines. After graduating in Wichita, she returned to Alaska, heading to for Barrow to work as a secretary for a Presbyterian minister translating the Bible into Inupiaq. She spent a year there, living with the pastor and his wife and learning all she could, including sewing skin garments.
“I admired everything they did,” she said in a 2006 interview. “They didn’t have to have packages come in the mail to have something to wear. They made it themselves.”
For Christmas that year she received a ring crafted locally from metal off the plane that crashed near Barrow, killing Will Rogers and Wiley Post.
Three years ago, Jurgeleit edited her Barrow journal and presented it in person to old friends there. “Harriett believed – I think – that she came of age in Barrow… She carried her memories like a treasure and during our walks she talked extensively about her joys there. Her diary from that period is exuberant,” said Marion Kinter, a friend who assisted the project.
Harriett married Gus Jurgeleit in 1953, after a first marriage to local pilot Fred Sheldon. Gus fell for her when she and Sheldon flew supplies into his Yukon mine at Silver Creek near the Tatshenshini River headwaters, said Jim Jurgeleit, son of Harriett and Gus. “She always said she didn’t remember meeting him, but he sure knew her.”
Gus left mining for a state job in Juneau where Harriett raised her family and worked for a bank. When he retired 25 years later, they built a home at 6 Mile Mud Bay Road, then beyond the power lines. “She was sure pleased when the power, and especially a telephone, finally arrived,” Jim Jurgeleit said.
Harriett played the organ for Presbyterian services, joined the Woman’s Club and volunteered for the fair. She became the fair’s first paid executive director, a position she held for about 15 years.
“The one thing I enjoyed doing most in my life, aside from raising my boys, was building up the Southeast Alaska State Fair,” she told a reporter. Longtime fair volunteer Dick Flegel recalled her mellow leadership style. “Harriett was always calm, always smiling, and in spite of all the fair chaos .”
Marge Ward was a friend for 65 years. They hiked together, and throughout much of their lives they swam in the morning, attended church, and enjoyed a weekly coffee klatch. “She was such a good friend. She had a great sense of humor. If I ever wanted to find her, she would be in the garden. She loved her flowers,” Ward said.
She said Jurgeleit spoke fondly of the days when Fort Seward was active and often declared that she preferred Alaska prior to statehood.
She was an avid genealogist and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, serving as the Alaska Regent from 1973-75 and state historian from 1975-77. She was also a member of the Daughters of Colonial Wars. Jim Jurgeleit said his mother traced the family origins to twelfth-century Scotland and that some of her ashes will be scattered there.
Family members include sons Larry, Jim, and Bill Jurgeleit, two grandchildren, Alec and Elizabeth Jurgeleit, and step-granddaughter Ellis Greene.