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Homer legend loves to learn, share

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 3:29pm  |  Updated: Apr 15 2015 - 3:30pm
By: Toni Ross
Daisy Lee Bitter poses with a magazine cover featuring the log cache that presides over the driveway to her peony farm. The cache is particularly significant to Bitter, as her late husband, Conrad, was quite proud of it. The spruce logs were first recycled by the Bitters from the old Kenai Burn. They used them to build a garden fence, which a cow moose destroyed. After that, they asked Barrett Fletcher to recycle them again, by constructing the log cache. On Thursday, Oct. 14, 1999, the cache appeared on the front page of the Homer News. The irony of that, says Bitter, was that her husband died that same day. The cache was more recently featured in December 2011 on the cover of Alaska Magazine, trimmed with clear lights and covered in snow.

She’s been named a master gardener, lifelong learner and citizen of the year — and the list goes on. A lot of living can happen in 87 years. 

Spend an afternoon with Daisy Lee Bitter and you’re going to learn something, or more likely, many things.

 

One kind of bluebell has 22 common names.

 

In March of this year, Bitter was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in recognition of her contributions to the state through science education. 

The hall of fame was initiated in 2008, in celebration of 50 years of statehood. The Alaska Women’s Network, along with other women’s groups and individuals, has inducted new members annually since March of 2009.

A full-time resident since 1983, Bitter retired to Homer after 29 years with the Anchorage School District. Although for her, retirement didn’t mean an end to teaching. 

As the first education director for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, or CACS, in the 1980s, Bitter created workshops, trained volunteers and supported teachers and students. Under her direction the education program received a national award. 

She was also a founding member of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, has served on the advisory board for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and was a state officer for Pioneers of Alaska.

By her estimation, Bitter has had thousands of students — and she’s not done yet. 

 

Rabbits and hares are different. When a rabbit is born, it has no hair, and its eyes are closed. With hares it’s the opposite. They are born with open eyes, and fittingly — hair. 

 

Bitter’s now twice-monthly radio program on KBBI, Kachemak Currents, is a four-minute show that has inspired listeners to appreciate nature for the past 29 years. 

As a young girl, it was her uncle who showed her the wonders of nature. He taught her what plants were edible, how to garden, and how to make whistles out of hollow plant stems. One time he had her kneel down in the shade of a peach tree, so she could see an ant lion at the bottom of a cone-like home made of sand, waiting for a victim to slide in. 

“He was a brilliant man,” she says, adding that as far back as she can remember, someone was telling her interesting things.

 

Use a propane torch to cut Typar for lining raised garden beds. That will eliminate a frayed edge on the woven plastic.

 

“I don’t feel like I’ve had a good day unless I’ve learned some new things,” she says. A house filled with books is testimony to her words. Although she’s written three guidebooks for the Wynn Nature Center, Bitter takes special pride in being one of the contributors

to a book published by the Homer Foundation.

“Kachemak Bay Alaska” is a tabletop book filled with stunning photos and essays from a number of different photographers and writers. It’s listed on the Homer Bookstore’s Web site as their number six bestseller for 2014. 

A couple of photos submitted by Bitter were included in the book. Her other contribution was writing captions for the photos — often using quotes from famous naturalists, and even lines from an Eskimo lullaby. 

 

A female pine grosbeak is yellowish and gray, while the male is a more reddish color.

 

Bitter and her husband, Conrad, first came to Homer during the summer of 1954. After being hired by the the Anchorage School District, they had driven up the Alaska Highway from California. Within a month they drove to Homer. Right then, they decided this was where they wanted to live when they retired. 

Conrad had been to Alaska before, serving as a radio operator on top of Mount Ballyhoo, overlooking Dutch Harbor during World War II. After he was discharged, the two were introduced by family and friends back in California.

“It was a put-up job,” says Bitter, with a laugh. But for her, he was the right guy, and they shared 51 years of marriage.

After their son, Tim, was born in 1960, they began coming to Homer steadily. They bought 28 acres on Skyline Drive and built a cabin. It’s the same land where she lives today, complete with cabins, a green house, gardens — and a few thousand peonies. 

 

Willows are dioecious, which means both a male and female plant are required to reproduce.

 

Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1946, Bitter says that she decided that she would control it, rather than having it control her. As a survivor of 69 years on insulin, she holds the Alaska record.

When asked what her advice to young people is, Bitter responds without hesitation. Get a good education. 

“Education is what will help you realize your goals in life,” she says. 

Bitter also learned the importance of positive role models. She’s had several, and hopes to be an effective one in turn.

Over the years Bitter says she has met many wonderful people — and that she still enjoys it when former students and teachers email or stop by. 

“I love the stories about how well they’re doing,” she says. 

One of those past students is Gretchen Bersch, also a member of the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame and a 1962 graduate of Homer High School. She student-taught under Bitter, and nominated her for the honor.

In her nomination, Bersch wrote that the experience of teaching under Bitter was life changing, launching her into a career spanning four decades.

Toni Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.

 

Daisy Lee Bitter

Some of Bitter’s more recent awards, which were listed in the nomination to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame by Gretchen Bersch:

Alaska Conservation Foundation – Jerry Dixon Award for Excellence in Environmental Education – 2011

Lifelong Learner Award from the Friends of the Homer Library – 2009

Homer Chamber of Commerce, Certificate of Honorary Membership – 2008

Volunteer of the Year Award from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies – 2006

Pratt Museum Natural History Service Award – 2000

Eight Stars of Gold Citizenship Award – 1990

Northwest Association of Marine Educators, Outstanding Marine Educator – 1988

Alaskan Exemplar for Excellence in Science Education – 1987

Homer Citizen of the Year – 1986

Willard Bowman Human Rights Award – 1979

Anchorage School District Teacher of the Year – 1967

Daisy Lee Bitter’s radio program, Kachemak Currents, airs on the third and fourth Saturdays of the month at 9:35 a.m. KBBI AM 890. 

 

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