Story last updated at 8:27 PM on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Homer's Eagle Lady dies

Controversial and charming, Jean Keene attracted not only eagles, but admirers from across the globe

BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG and MCKIBBEN JACKINSKY
STAFF WRITERS

Jean Keene has fed her last eagle. The woman known worldwide as "The Eagle Lady," Keene, 85, died at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the Eagle Spot, her modest cabin on the Homer Spit where she had fed eagles every winter for more than 30 years. In home health care, Keene died surrounded by friends. She had been hospitalized several times last year for respiratory problems, but hung in to feed her beloved eagles for the season allowed her by city ordinance.


 

Jean Keene is shown up close to the eagles. She began her controversial feedings in the winter of 1977-78.

"I never dreamt she'd be here to feed the eagles one more time," said her son, Lonnie Keene. "My mom was an amazing, beautiful person who constantly dazzled me," he added.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York the Statue of Liberty, but in Homer, the Eagle Spot and Keene attracted visitors from across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, Japan, China and France. Photographers on $3,200-a-person tours came for a chance to snap pictures of America's national bird. Professional photographers estimated that 80 percent of published eagle photographs had been taken on the Spit.

Keene refused payment to photograph from the compound by her house. She had a soft spot for people with special needs, like Lathern Hensley of Asheville, N.C., who met Keene through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

People came to see the eagles, but also to see Keene. With her bright curly hair, her large glasses and extravagant jewelry, she stood out around town. At her special booth at Land's End Resort, she courted admirers from all over.

"She's just an amazing person," Hensley said about Keene on his visit two years ago. "There won't be another person like her."

Wednesday morning, Dave and Lori Crane of Seward watched the eagles near Keene's Homer Spit compound.

"Everybody loves eagles and if you count yourself lucky to see one you're amazed at how many there are," Dave Crane said.

On their frequent visits to this side of the Kenai Peninsula, the Cranes have made it a point to stop at Keene's. Owners of the 100-year-old Alaska Shop, a favorite place for visitors to Seward and the Resurrection Bay area, the Cranes said they have frequently encouraged people to come to Homer to view Keene's eagle-feeding activities.

"What a one-in-a-million," said Cindy Koch of Vashon Island, Wash., who bought Keene a new trailer after her old motorhome wore out. "What a little toughie. I so admire her spirit and how much she loved those silly birds."


 

Photo by/courtesy of Cary Anders

Jean Keene and the eagles

Born Jean Marie Hodgdon on Oct. 20, 1923, in Aitkin, Minn., Keene was the oldest child. She performed as a rodeo trick horse rider until an accident broke her leg in 80 places -- the first of many life-threatening incidents that she would bounce back from, including a bad car accident and breast cancer. After her recovery, she became a truck driver and later worked at the Jolly Chef Truck Stop in Minneapolis. She also ran a dog and cat grooming business.

Growing up, Lonnie Keene said his mother always loved animals. They'd go to a bakery every Saturday and buy old bread and feed it to the creatures of the forest behind their home.

"Every raccoon, every bird, every animal in the forest behind our house never went hungry," he said.

Keene came to Alaska in the spring of 1977, driving a motorhome by herself up the Alaska Highway. She got a job at the Icicle Seafoods Cannery, and camped at the Homer Spit Campground owned by the Chapple family. Keene stayed through the winter as a caretaker.

She never left.

In the winter of 1977-78, Keene began feeding bald eagles. The practice became controversial. Some tried to get eagle feeding outlawed. Eventually, the Homer City Council passed an ordinance banning feeding of eagles and other birds -- but exempting Keene. She was allowed to feed birds until 2010.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said the city has allowed Steve Tarola, a friend of Keene, another 10 days to feed eagles. The city also is talking to biologists to see if eagles could be harmed by suddenly stopping feeding.

Even some who didn't approve of her eagle feeding still liked Keene. With her spirit, her energy and her persistence, Keene charmed almost everyone she met.

"She just kept her head down and kept on going," Koch said.

Controversial as her eagle feeding might have been, it benefited Homer, some said.

"She grew Homer's winter tourism industry," said former Homer Chamber of Commerce Director Derotha Ferraro. "She shared the beauty and majesty of Alaska with many. She was definitely one of Homer's finest ambassadors, and she had friends from all over the world to prove it."

Nature photographers cherished the chance to photograph birds up close, but even more, they came to love Keene.

"For us, she was a bright spot in Homer," said Mary Frische, who owns Wild North Photography with her husband Tom Callopy. "She had marvelous spirit and a love for the birds that kept her going for a long time."

"She's a character. She's just a person you don't forget," said Don Pitcher, a Homer photographer. "Her obituary -- I wouldn't be surprised if it's in the New York Times. How many Homer people would merit that?"

Because of her close association with eagles, Keene could frequently identify when one was injured or unhealthy. More than once, she coordinated their transport to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, according to Cindy Palmatier, the center's director of avian care. Several of the birds were eventually returned to the wild.

"If she noticed somebody wasn't doing well, she'd do her best to get someone out there to get them," Palmatier said. "In several cases, she caught them herself."

Keene held a special place in the hearts of Land's End Resort staff. She visited on a daily basis, parking in a spot reserved for her and relaxing in a booth designated as hers.

"We're all in shock over here," General Manager Dawn Schneider said Wednesday morning. "We're going to miss her tremendously. She has really good friends out here."

Keene had friends far beyond the Spit, as Schneider knew all too well.

"She had a huge fan base," Schneider said. "She'd sit in her booth every day and try to answer e-mails and letters she got. She wanted to answer every one of those."

As the owner of Land's End Resort, Jon Faulkner had an up-close view of Keene's impact on others.

"She never made the front cover of Time, but she's held court, so to speak, with some very impressive personalities and they all found her very engaging," Faulkner said. "When someone of her humble nature, humble station in life could capture the respect and admiration of, literally, the nation's wealthiest people it speaks volumes for who she was."

Faulkner counted himself fortunate to have heard Jean recount some of her adventures.


 

Jean Keene

"I'm just sad she didn't personally write more," he said. "She was certainly cool to be around and listen to.

Hours after her passing, Faulkner put pen to paper to express his thoughts about the woman he considered "pretty extraordinary" (see "Ode to Jean," this page).

Faulkner said plans are being made for a gathering on the Spit in Keene's honor in the near future.

When author and photographer Cary Anderson met Keene almost 25 years ago. In 2003, Anderson's published "The Eagle Lady," a book about Keene's life.

"Lots of people write books, but rare are those people who lead such remarkable lives that they become the subject of a book," Anderson said. "Jean's ruggedness, friendly character and her incredible relationship with hundred of eagles won't be forgotten."

Hearing of her declining health, Anderson called her earlier this week and was able to have a short conversation with her.

"I am so very lucky to be among those whose lives she touched. I am going to miss Jean, very deeply," Anderson said.

Stephanie Pitzman was captivated by Keene the day Keene rolled her "funky blue and white motorhome" into the campground owned by Pitzman's parents, John and Peggy Chapple, more than 30 years ago.

"She had flaming red hair, bold unique jewelry and striking outfits. Her motorhome was filled with fascinating collections and artwork. I remember being totally amazed by the load of treasure she had stockpiled in that rig," Pitzman said.

Keene's companion was a little terrier named Daisy that Pitzman and others took for walks. Keene paid the dog-walkers with porcupine quills, walrus whiskers, pieces of turquoise, polished rocks, beads "and all sorts of things irresistible to a child," Pitzman recalled.

"When I got married in 1993, I wasn't surprised that she gave us a beautiful piece of baleen with scrimshaw artwork as a wedding gift," Pitzman said. "Jean Keene was a special friend and a very unique woman."

Keene was a popular Homer Spit Campground attraction, according to Pitzman's mother, Peggy Chapple.

"Every year people would come and say, 'Oh, is the Eagle Lady here? Can we go see her? Do you mind if we knock on her door?'" Chapple said.

Without fail, Keene was gracious, never turning away guests, welcoming their inquiries about the eagles and requests to view the extraordinary flower garden hidden behind her compound walls.

On Tuesday, when Chapple and her husband, John, heard Keene's health was failing, they went to see her. Although Keene was unable to speak, she squeezed their hands, letting them know she was aware of their presence.

Another presence sat just outside Keene's window.

"From her bed, she could look right out the window and there was an eagle, almost like it was watching, guarding over her," Chapple said. "It was awesome. That's the way she wanted to go. At home, at peace and with her eagles guarding her."

At his mother's request, Keene said no formal services are planned. Jean Keene is survived by her son, Lonnie Keene, granddaughter, Chelsea Keene, both of Minneapolis, and one sister, Gloria Danielson.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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