Fifteen Years in Alaska

Friday, November 10, 2017 | by Diane Dryden |


Tim Donovan was born and lived an idyllic life in Spooner. Surrounded by a great group of friends in a supportive community they grew up playing team sports and enjoying all of the recreational opportunities that the four seasons in northern Wisconsin provided. 

He graduated from Spooner High School in 1974 and having been inspired by two great Physical Education instructors (Skip Shireman and John Engstrom) he enrolled at UW-La Crosse with a double major in Physical Education and Health Education and a minor in coaching. The interest in the field was blossoming as fitness gurus like Jim Fixx and Jane Fonda were leading the country into more of an awareness of personal fitness and health. 

After graduation with a degree in education, his first teaching position was in a large middle school in Aurora, IL.  It was a little culture shock coming from a High School with 600 students in four grades to a very diverse inner city school with over eleven hundred students in three grades.  The Health Education field was so new that he was called on to write the school’s first curriculum.  While there Tim had the opportunity to go to Alaska during several summers while school wasn’t in session.  Travelling there with Pat Rand and Jim Sundeen, two friends from Spooner, he found work in a grocery store managed by Pat’s older brother John. 

The money was great but the experience of living in Alaska in a fishing village surrounded by mountains was a transformative experience.  The city of Cordova normally has a population similar to Spooner but that number nearly doubles from April to September with the influx of fishermen and cannery workers.  “The grocery store was busy all summer and we worked about 65 hours each week.”  All of our stock was shipped in either by airplane or barge.  We even sold two types of eggs.  Those that came by barge, a long journey from Seattle were called just that, boat eggs.  Their quality and price was much lower than those that came on the plane. 

Even though Cordova was similar in size to Spooner they were serviced by two airlines and had twice a day jet service to Anchorage and Seattle.  The lengthy summer daylight hours allowed for plenty of time for hiking and fishing after work and many pounds of fish were transported home at the end of each summer. 

Each time he returned to Alaska it was for a little longer period and when a layoff occurred in his teaching position he had to make a decision.  He had decided to return to school in La Crosse to enroll in a new program for managing fitness programs when a position opened in the small recreation center in his summer residence in Alaska.  The program/building housed a gymnasium and a weight room and operated summer day camps for children.  Tim became the Recreation Program Director responsible for planning and implementing after-school athletic programs for elementary students and operating adult fitness programs and volleyball and basketball leagues.  

Although Cordova began as a Railroad town when the Kennicott copper mines opened at the beginning of the 20th century, the closure of the mines and the disappearance of the railroad allowed the residents to explore another natural resource, the sea. 

At the edge of Prince William Sound and the mouth of the Copper River the community enjoys an incredible abundance of commercial and recreational fishing opportunities.  Once known as the Razor Clam Capital of the World the area is now known for other high-quality seafood.  One of Tim’s friends operates an oyster farm while others focus on seasonal crab and shrimp fisheries.  Commercial fishing for halibut, cod, herring, and five species of salmon are the main focus of the community.  The herring run used to provide up to 30% of some of the fishermen’s annual income in a fiercely competitive “season” that may only be open for a few hours in a small area.  The congestion of boats and spotting planes in the all or nothing fishery can best be described as combat fishing.  The fishermen in this fishery used a two boat system with a purse seine in which a smaller boat would attempt to drag the net in a circle trying to surround as much of a school of fish as possible.  The net would then be reattached to the larger boat and the bottom of the net would be closed.  The same system is used during the pink salmon fishery.

In its heyday, the fishing fleet in Cordova supplied five local canneries with product that was canned, smoked, and frozen.  In addition to a large native population, the fishing industry attracted workers from the Philippines and Japan.  Japanese business interests began to invest in the canneries as their fishing opportunities were limited by treaties and expansion of U.S. coastal fishing zones.  The small boat owners concentrated on the early King (Chinook) and Red (Sockeye) salmon in May and June and the Silver (Coho) in the late summer.

Meanwhile, Tim was single, energetic and willing to work and eventually held three or four jobs at a time.  His work schedule was seven days a week for eleven months.  Still working a couple of days a week at the store he was full time at the Rec. Center and part-time at a moving company as well as managing two four-plexes and a 55 unit trailer park.  He would come back to Spooner for the holidays to see family and friends and would usually see Arizona for a couple of weeks in March to watch baseball and to get some sun.  Although Cordova would see nearly 22 hours of daylight in the summer it might only get three or four hours of sun in the winter months.

In 1989 on Good Friday the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound having a devastating impact on the environment and Cordova’s fishing industry.  The towns around the spill area experienced many bankruptcies, divorces and even suicides in the wake of this disaster.  The aforementioned herring fishery has never recovered from this event.  Nearly thirty years later one can still find oil on some of the beaches in the affected area.  The Exxon corporation dragged the litigation out for years eventually winning by citing a precedent from early shipping laws that stated a boat owner was not responsible for cargo which accidentally spilled into the sea.  At the time of that initial ruling the only oil being transported by ship was whale oil, never the less, Exxon won.

During his time in Alaska Tim married and had a son, Kilian.  The marriage eventually went south and so did he and Kilian, returning to Spooner where he still had a great support system of family and friends.  Back in 1999 and starting over he returned to the field of education, this time enrolling in UW Eau Claire’s Special Education program and getting a long-term sub position at Spooner High School.  Eventually, he received his Master of Education degree and was hired full time.  While teaching and being a single father he also coached Volleyball.  Two years at the middle school and one year as the freshman coach before coaching the varsity program for four years.  During his time in the Special Education program, Tim began what became known as the Spirit Chain program in which students created custom-made key chains with letter beads.  Initially, the program was just intended to teach some job skills with assembly and product development but other students became interested in purchasing the chains and things started to expand.  Soon the students began selling the chains at athletic events and the program began to see skills develop in research, marketing, sales, manufacturing and customer service.  The students eventually shared their program at a state conference on transition and other schools began to visit and contact Tim for information on how to incorporate this idea into their curriculums.  At one time there were about eleven schools around the state that had started a Spirit Chain program of their own.  The Spooner students have produced and sold thousands of the Spirit Chains and have become well known around the area for their product.

Everything was good, his life, his classes, the Spirit Chain program.  Then he hit a kind of professional wall and there were changes coming in the profession too.  It was finally time to retire.  It was 2014.  With an abundance of energy, a son in college and still having bills to pay it was difficult to think about the uncertainties facing him in retirement.  While in Rice Lake at Menards he decided to apply for a job.  The four-page application had to remain in the store and he did his best to try to remember addresses, names and phone numbers of supervisors for jobs that he had held more than fifteen years before.  He never heard from them.  It was his mother, Delores, who had worked as a secretary for Spooner High School for nearly 20 years, who told him that Ace Hardware in town was hiring.  He applied, interviewed, and was hired.  There were two other  “retired” educators on the staff and they refer to Mike and Jill Lehman, their employers as operating a “teacher rehabilitation program.”

He is still involved with the school.  At each football game he’s part of the chain gang and during basketball games, he operates the statistic board.  In the rest of his spare time, he followed the family example of being involved in local politics as he is one of the city council reps for the 4th ward.  His father had served as mayor of Spooner in the 1970’s and his mother was a council rep for the second ward.

It’s been a well-rounded life so far for Tim and someday he wouldn’t mind going back to Cordova, but not yet, there’s still too much to do here.



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