Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Lost and found life in Soldotna
By Clark Fair
As she ambled through the immense and grassy grid of graves in Sitka this fall, 66-year-old Mary Lou Leavitt finally found one of the things she had come halfway around the world to see: the small rectangle of marble marking the final resting place of her father, Lou Leavitt.
He died in Sitka in 1979, three years after moving from Soldotna into the assisted-living quarters at the Sitka Pioneer Home. At the time, Mary Lou was living in London, having surrendered a career in teaching in the United States to engage in a career in activism abroad. The last time she had been in Alaska was 1967, when she spent her summer vacation with her dad.
Lou, who, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame Web site, was America’s first licensed rotary-wing pilot, had been living in Soldotna for three years when his daughter arrived.
They spent the summer mostly talking and traveling, using Lou’s small wood-frame home on Lingonberry Lane as a base.
“I remember the river (out behind the house),” Mary Lou said, “and that it was way out from a very small town. But mostly I remember sitting in that (place) and talking with him and kind of catching up on his life and his friends.”
She said she felt at the time that the house “epitomized” her father. “It was simple and surrounded by wildlife, woods and river,” she said. “He was a pioneer type. (His life) was about adventure. It was about doing what he enjoyed doing.”
It was Lou’s adventurous spirit that had led him to Alaska in the first place.
A test pilot for autogiros and the fledgling helicopter industry, Lou had traveled in 1948 to Anchorage to try to interest Alaskans in the benefits of rotary-wing aircraft. A former barnstormer and crop-duster, he was well equipped for flying and enjoyed the risks involved in demonstrating the prototype machines.
But in 1967, at the age of 67, Lou was semiretired and simply delighting in life itself.
“He enjoyed his little cabin in the woods,” Mary Lou said, “but he also enjoyed Soldotna and the people he knew there.
“He was a hale fellow, well met, lots of friends, lots of acquaintances, lots of people that he could have a drink with.”
When their summer of ’67 was yellowing into autumn, Mary Lou promised to return.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll come back. I’ll come back and see you.’ And I never did.”
It was part of a pattern of separations that characterized their relationship over the years.
Lou had gained a measure of fame for giving an autogiro flight in 1936 to young Frank Piasecki — soon to become a world-renown innovator in the business of vertical takeoffs and landings. Lou himself stayed attached to the rotary-wing industry, and by the time he arrived in Anchorage in 1948, he was well-known and respected in his field.
His family, however, was back in Philadelphia and had trepidations about coming to Alaska. Lou’s wife, Marianne, was weary of her husband’s many exploits and constantly changing plans, said Mary Lou. Reluctantly, she brought her 6-year-old daughter to Anchorage and spent her summer with Lou. Then she returned home without him in the fall.
Mary Lou said she remembers flying to Anchorage in 1948 in the belly of a cargo plane containing a helicopter for her father. She reveled in a summer of being Daddy’s little girl, but when Lou went back to work as a test pilot, she went home with her mom.
Before 1967, the father-daughter relationship had consisted of correspondence and occasional trips by Lou out to the East Coast. After 1967, the relationship reverted to more of the same.
Sometime between Mary Lou’s first two visits to Alaska, Lou left aeronautics behind and became a bartender in Anchorage. Described by his daughter as a “hard-living, hard-drinking guy,” Lou became so ill with cirrhosis in the mid-1950s that his sister had him flown out to New York for treatment.
Upon his recovery, he once again headed north. Just before the Good Friday earthquake struck in 1964, Lou sold his bar and moved to Soldotna, purchasing the small house from the Gibbs family, who had built the place on land purchased from Marge and Frank Mullen in 1954.
Meanwhile, Mary Lou was becoming a young woman with elements of adventurism and wanderlust of her own. She was studying at Oxford University, in England, when her father surprised her with a visit and inspired her trip to Soldotna in 1967.
Mary Lou taught Latin and history on the East Coast for nine years before returning to London permanently in 1976, about the same time Lou, whose health was deteriorating, made the move to Sitka.
“He kept trying to get out and come back (to Soldotna),” she said. “He didn’t like being in an old folks home. I think he minded not being able to do what he wanted to do.”
After being informed of her father’s death, Mary Lou decided that at some point she would return to Soldotna, return to the little house along the river that he had loved so much. Upon her retirement as co-director of British-based Responding To Conflict organization in 2006, she got her best opportunity to come back.
In Soldotna, she met with Marge Mullen and several others who had called Lou Leavitt a friend. She was also able to tour the old house, now occupied by another family, and to note its close proximity to other, much larger homes now inhabiting Lingonberry Lane.
She said she was pleased that the house, despite many changes, was now “lived in and loved.” And she said she felt blessed to have made the trip and discovered so many connections to her father and the place she had not seen for 41 years.
“I’m here to honor him in my life, the part of his life that was about adventure, about pioneering — about what Alaska feels like to me — as well as breaking new ground, living the way you want,” she said.
She called her Soldotna sojourn “a kind of feeling of completion or satisfaction,” but she added a caveat:
“It’s a journey, and it’s not over yet. I really believe that relationships don’t end when one party dies. So I’m still working on the relationship with my dad, and I suspect he’s still somewhere working on it with me.”