Legendary writer, scientist Rearden dies

  • Jim Rearden in 2013.
  • Jim Rearden, center, wearing his Alaska tuxedo, receives the 2011 Governor’s Award for the Humanities from Commissioner of Commerce & Economic Development Susan Bell as his wife, Audrey, far right, and son, Mike Rearden, watch. Homer writer Jim Rearden, center, smiles at the crowd following the presentation of his humanities award at the Alaska State Council on the Arts Governor’s Awards Banquet Oct. 19. With Rearden are, from left, his son Mike, Commissioner of Commerce & Economic Development Susan Bell and wife, Audrey Rearden.

Writer, photographer, editor, professor, biologist, outdoorsman, scholar, veteran, Alaskan and family man: in the history of Alaska’s post-World War II generation that came into the country and settled the state, Jim Douglas Rearden exemplified the breed. Wicked smart, funny, personable and handsome right down to his neatly clipped brush mustache, he stood as an example in the arts, humanities and sciences.

On Feb. 18, at the age of 91 and surrounded by family, one of Homer’s most prolific writers died at South Peninsula Hospital.

“He was a man’s man, an outdoorsman, but he also was a staunch family man, too,” said Homer pioneer Ray Kranich.

Homer writer Tom Kizzia, who picked Rearden’s brain about Alaska hunting for his book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” called Rearden “a bedrock of our literary community.”

“The generation of Alaska writers who came up after Jim looked up to him for his deep experience and knowledge of his subject, as well as for his work ethic and narrative skill,” Kizzia said.

Born April 22, 1925, in Petaluma, Calif., to Barton and Grace Rearden, he finished high school at age 17 and enlisted March 1943 in the U.S. Navy. His father taught agriculture at Rearden’s high school. Rearden served on the USS Loverling during World War II, doing destroyer escort in the Pacific Ocean in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands.

In Petaluma, Rearden and a boyhood friend dreamed of coming to Alaska. He would be a cowboy and his friend a bush pilot. After the war, he finished a bachelor of science degree at Oregon State College, Corvallis. While a junior he got his chance to come to Alaska, working a summer job in 1947 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a fishing patrol agent at Chignik in the Alaska Peninsula.

“I got the greatest job anyone could possibly have,” Rearden told the Homer News in 2010.

On a stop in Seldovia, he saw his first view of Homer from across Kachemak Bay, not dreaming at the time he would wind up here. In 1950 he earned a master of science from the University of Maine, Orono, where also had a teaching and research fellowship. There he saw a job announcement for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He applied and got the job. With his first wife, Ursula, and their family, they drove up the Alaska Highway in a 1941 Buick. Rearden soon became chairman of the Department of Wildlife Management at UAF. He quit after finding teaching didn’t suit him.

“I wasn’t happy standing in front of a blackboard. I wanted to do things,” he said.

In July 1955 Rearden moved to Homer with uncertain prospects but a dream: to be a freelance writer and a registered guide. He had started writing in college. Like many new Homer arrivals, he kicked around at odd jobs: working with Al Greer’s Qwik-Log company, building the White Alice Site on Diamond Ridge, working as a clerk at George Bishop’s store. Bishop told him about serving in the Alaska Scouts, the home-defense territorial unit in World War II. That led to “Castner’s Cutthroats,” one of Rearden’s more popular books and one that Homer writer Dana Stabenow said she’s hand-sold more than some of her own books.

Rearden’s gift as a writer came from meeting or learning about Alaska characters and then telling their story. On a trip up the Koyuuk River drainage he met Andy Anderson, a Wien Air pilot. Anderson’s story became part of “Arctic Bush Pilots.” An encounter with another Interior Alaska legend, Sydney Huntington, led to “Shadows on the Koyukuk,” by Huntington and as told to Rearden.

Anchorage outdoors writer Craig Medred called that book one “every Alaskan should read.”

“It wouldn’t have been what it was without Jim’s selfless contributions. He did a lot of the work. I never heard him claim any of the credit. That was Jim. We could use a lot more like him now,” Medred said in an email.

Medred said Rearden was like another big-game guide, writer and professor Chuck Keim, who was Medred’s journalism professor at UAF.

“He was part of an old generation who didn’t just talk about things; they did things. There are too many now who think writers sit in an office somewhere and write. They don’t. They get out and live life and learn things,” he said. “They were men who knew a lot and shared a lot.”

After statehood in 1959, Rearden got a job as assistant area biologist with the new Alaska Department of Fish and Game, eventually becoming area biologist and overseeing commercial fisheries management. He later served on the Alaska Board of Fish and the Alaska Board of Game. In 1970, President Gerald Ford appointed him to the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.

Homer fisherman Beaver Nelson got hired by Rearden to work on a research project.

Nelson said the Homer office had an assistant manager and a secretary.

“That was it,” Nelson said. “Jim managed crab, shrimp and salmon from Anchorage all the way to Seward. There was lots of crab, lots of shrimp, lots of salmon, and he handled it just fine … Back in those days it was wild and wooly, and Jim did a hell of a job.”

Nelson said Rearden had “an amazing ability to communicate. That’s why he was such a good author and writer. He could communicate to everyone.”

Rearden was working at the Homer Fish and Game office when the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake hit. After checking on his family, he went back to the office. The full extent of the damage statewide wasn’t known right away. At the office, Rearden tried to make contact outside the area via a two-way radio. That link allowed Rearden to make contact with Juneau officials who were unable to contact Anchorage. It also allowed Rearden to begin gathering information about the extent of the damage. In the days that followed, Rearden was part of a communication network that helped identify the missing and dead, none from Homer, deliver personal messages and broadcast lists of supplies needed.

While working at Fish and Game, Rearden also wrote. In 1969 Bob Henning hired him to be outdoors editor for Alaska Magazine, working out of Homer — a position he held for 20 years. Henning had gotten behind in the slush pile, and Rearden spent a winter going through six cartons of manuscripts. Some writers showed promise, he said.

“There was a secret to running that magazine. It was kind of like reading someone else’s mail. Any Alaskan with a good story would get into,” he said.

As editor, his job was to work with writers to make those good stories look professional. When he polished up stories, he sent them back to the authors for their approval.

“That made me more friends than I could imagine,” he said.

In January 1966 he married his second wife, Audrey, formerly of Dillingham and a classmate of former First Lady Bella Hammond. They blended a family of five children from Rearden’s first marriage and three from hers. They built a 36-foot-by-45-foot two-story log home just off Pioneer Avenue.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he appreciated all of Rearden’s work for the state throughout the years. Seaton recalled that in 2013 Rearden approached him and asked him to sponsor a bill creating a “Jay Hammond Day.”

“It was a great idea. I got it passed, and now because of Jim, every July 21 is Jay Hammond Day,” Seaton said.

Over his career, Rearden wrote 28 books and more than 500 articles in 40 different magazines, including National Geographic, Sports Afield, Audubon, Field and Stream, and the German and French GEO. Rearden continued to write after becoming partially paralyzed in a fall, using a computer dictation system to write and edit several more books.

“I have the deepest admiration for his long career, both in wildlife management and in writing,” said Homer writer Nancy Lord. “He was a hugely prolific writer who kept at it right until the end. … His recent books, that record great depths of Alaska research, will be very valuable not just for what they add to Alaskan books right now but as sources of Alaska history that future readers, writers, and historians will find immeasurably valuable.”

He was named Historian of the Year in 1999 by the Alaska Historical Society, and in 2005 the University of Alaska Fairbanks awarded him an honorary doctorate degree for his teaching, wildlife conservation work and writing. Kachemak Bay Campus director Carol Swartz remembered how Rearden taught at the college’s Elder Hostel program, lecturing on the history of Alaska.

“He mesmerized all the visiting elder hostellers with his stories,” Swartz said. “He was delightful. … What a good guy; what a kind guy.”

In 2011 Rearden received the Governor’s Award for Humanities for his lifelong service chronicling the lives of Alaskans. Catkin Kilcher Burton, chairman of the Humanities Forum Board of Directors, recalled sitting with Rearden and his family in 2011 at the awards banquet. She remembered Rearden from growing up in Homer.

“It was a real honor being able to sit with him and reconnect,” she said. “The forum really valued his contributions to all of Alaska through his service to the humanities. I was also amazed at the number of books he had written, and that he continued to write and contribute.”

He also received Artist of the Year in 2016 from the Homer Council on the Arts.

A private graveside service will be held Feb. 23, with a memorial tribute planned for a later date.

Jim was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers, a sister, grandson and former wife, Ursula Rodgers.

He is survived by five children, Kathy Rearden, Mary (Bruce) Bookman, Mike (Nita) Rearden, Nancy (Ken) Kleine, and Jim K. Rearden; three stepchildren, Terry Sagmoen (Loulare), Mike Sagmoen, Tamara (Charles) Halkett; his wife of 51 years, Audrey; 20 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and many close, dear friends.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. Material from this story was previously published in Homer News articles from April 2010 and March 2014.

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