In the late 1950s, the population of Alaska—then still a territory of the United States—was less than 200,000 people. Most of the inhabitants were native Alaskans or members of the military. Most of the roads were unpaved. Most travel in and out of the territory was by air or sea. Fishing and copper mining were the major industries. “The Last Frontier,” its self-appointed moniker, was an apt description of this frosty hinterland.
It was at this time that three young Calvin alumnae—Anne Engbers, Jacque Greenman and Marjorie Van Kooten, all Class of 1958—decided to strike out on an adventure that would last a lifetime. The trio had recently graduated from the nursing program at Calvin and the women were looking for jobs.
None remembers who brought up the idea first, but the idea of moving to Alaska was introduced and agreed upon by all three.
“Most of the people I talked to thought we were going to the end of the world,” said Greenman. “I remember my sister asking my dad, ‘How do you dare to let her go?’ They thought they would never see us again.”
Engbers agreed that their idea was met with mixed reaction. “Yes, people thought it was the end of the earth, but they also said, ‘Go now while you have the chance. Don’t wait.’”
Van Kooten was probably the most familiar with the area, having grown up in Washington and having an uncle who had been there.
“When I was 8 years old, my Uncle Len went to Alaska to work,” said Van Kooten. “I remember him coming back, sitting by the woodstove, talking about Alaska. I remember thinking that I would love to go to Alaska some time.”
The women sent letters to the then-three hospitals in Alaska and were hired by the Alaska Native Medical Center, which had opened only five years prior to help meet the growing medical needs of native Alaskans, including their higher-than-average tuberculosis mortality rate.
“It felt like you were signing your life away if you didn’t like it up there,” said Engbers, “even though [the contract] was only for two years.”
Yet, in the fall of 1958, one year before Alaska became a state, the threesome climbed into Van Kooten’s 1954 Chevy Bel Air for a “two-year” adventure that would last more than 50 years.
“My dad made us take extra tires and a fan belt—not that we would have known what to do with it,” said Greenman. “It took a long time to get there—more than a week; once we got to Alaska it was all gravel roads.”
“There were thistles blowing across the road, and some of the buildings were painted with naked women,” continued Van Kooten. “I thought this was the ‘den of iniquity.’”
“I thought we better find out where the church is,” added Engbers.
Once settled, working in the Alaska Native Medical Center was a rewarding experience, according to the women. “You felt like you were really wanted and needed,” said Engbers.
“We enjoyed the population,” added Greenman. “It was like a big, happy family.”
Ever the wanderlusts, though, Engbers, Greenman and Van Kooten decided after four years to spend some time in Europe.
“We tried for a leave of absence but had to resign,” said Greenman. “We did say, ‘we really like it here. We should leave our stuff here in case we decide to come back.’”
After a three-month stint through 14 countries on the European continent in a Volkswagen camper, they did return and were immediately hired back.
It was then that somewhat subconsciously the women began realizing that Alaska would become their permanent home; they became vested in this place that had become the much-heralded 49th state in 1959.
Engbers worked steadily in the tuberculosis wards, seeing Alaska’s mortality rate from TB drop from the highest per capita ever reported to virtually zero. Greenman became an advocate for maternal-child health programs throughout the state, participating in a program that saw infant mortality rates drop from 10 percent to just over 1 percent. Van Kooten, after several years in the pediatric ward serving as both nurse and mother to numerous young patients from outlying villages, became a practical nursing instructor teaching native students at the community college.
They helped build Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Anchorage, which completed its sanctuary in 1961. They endured the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. They joined the Prospector’s Club, a group of people who enjoyed traveling and wanted to find out more about their fair state.
“Those were the kinds of things that drew you to Alaska and kept you there—being a part of things,” said Greenman. “We were the first group of tourists to go to St. Lawrence Island,” she said. “There were two restaurants on the island, and the one we stopped at only had eight plates; there were 25 of us. So we ate our reindeer steak, potatoes and an orange for dessert in three shifts.”
They even ate muk tuk, a traditional dish of the far north, consisting of boiled beluga whale skin. “It’s a glob of chewy fat,” said Greenman. “They love it here. I might not take seconds of it.”
So, the women stayed and worked in Alaska. “Our families kept thinking we would come back home,” said Engbers, “but finally people realized that the Lord had a mission for us here.”
The mission continued past their retirements in the early to mid-1990s. In fact it continues today.
“God didn’t put us here to live in a glass cage,” said Van Kooten, “or to make no contributions.”
Since 1998, after moving 100 miles south of Anchorage to Cooper Landing, described by Greenman as “the most beautiful place on Earth,” the women have continued their contributions.
In 1999, they incorporated themselves into the Cooper Landing Senior Citizen Corp. Inc. Now at about 100 members strong, the group has worked to secure senior housing in the Cooper Landing area. With the first six units already occupied, these social activists are working on a plan to build more housing units.
“The bureaucracy here is tough to work with,” said Greenman, who chairs the building and site committee. “Just getting water and heat directed and arranged is overwhelming.”
The group has applied for and received grants for the project from the Alaska Housing Authority.
“We got involved in politicking, and we’ve been politicking ever since,” explained Engbers.
In their town of about 400 people, the trio has organized the Sexy Senior Dumpster Cleaners, a group of retired individuals who goes out by bus every Monday tidying up areas around trash transfer sites.
They also operate a transportation program for seniors (Greenman drives the bus), which transports seniors to a nearby town for shopping and other necessities. And they’re working on a plan for a local health clinic, which will be staffed by volunteer health workers … perhaps a few retired nurses?
Besides their advocacy work, the trio stays busy with travel, golf and—for about three weeks of the year—dip netting.
“We have been exposed to so many things,” Engbers said of their Alaskan adventure.
“I really don’t think that I’d be the person that I am today … in every area of life: professionally, spiritually, socially, culturally,” added Van Kooten. “And I know that I would have never gone alone.”
“We were ready to go out,” said Greenman. “Through it we have been given so many more opportunities. It’s been so much more than we ever expected.”
— Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85 is managing editor of Spark
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