Iditarod Hall of Fame: Joanne Potts

bbragg@adn.comMarch 1, 2013 

— It's the Wednesday before the Iditarod starts, and the small, temporary headquarters at the Millennium Hotel is crammed with people, most of whom have questions. Lucky for them, Joanne Potts is in the room.

"Hi, Superwoman," a man greets Potts as he walks into the room.

Potts, 73, is the first Hall of Fame inductee who is an Iditarod staff member. She started with the race as a volunteer in 1976 and became an employee in 1982.

Her superpowers include institutional knowledge and multi-tasking skills that make her the go-to player if you want to enter the race, volunteer for the race or cover the race.

Her current title is assistant to the race director, but she has filled almost every behind-the-scenes role but chief veterinarian and trail-setter.

She is the voice on the phone if you have a question and the smiling face greeting you at the finish line in Nome, whether you finish first, last or somewhere in between. She is the first person at the hospital to visit a sick or injured musher, and when there's a death in the extended Iditarod family, she's the one who spreads the word.

"She works her butt off," said Iditarod race photographer Jeff Schultz, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "If you need an answer you go to Joanne, and she is there.

"She is there every stinking day, and she's been there for 35 years. She hasn't been there since Day 1, but darn-near."

The race was four years old when Potts when she began her association with it. Her volunteer work for the 1976 race consisted of answering phones for two hours two nights a week during the two weeks of the race.

She ran race headquarters in Eagle River one year and did the same in Anchorage for two years before she was hired as the part-time race director in 1982 over the objections of Joe Redington Sr., the race founder and a charter member of the Hall of Fame.

The Wasilla race headquarters used to be on the second floor of Teeland's. One day Redington walked in and found Potts with her feet up on the desk.

"He thought that was so tacky," she said. "He told the board I wasn't fit to be race director, but they went ahead and picked me."

Years later, the two laughed about that. Among those who nominated Potts for the Hall of Fame was Barb Redington.

Another nomination came from Edna Peters of Ruby, who wrote: "She will move heaven and earth to help mushers. The Iditarod would not run as smoothly as it does without her."

Potts, who was born and raised in Richmond, Ky., came to Alaska in 1967 when husband Art was hired to be the Presbyterian minister in Hydaburg. Potts got a job teaching grade school. Potts gave birth to two children, Valerie and Jim, before the family moved to Illinois so Art could study to become a therapist.

They returned to Alaska in 1974 and settled in Wasilla, where one of her neighbors was Lois Harter, one of the early Iditarod volunteers. Soon Potts was volunteering too.

The job is year-round and things are seldom slow, although February is particularly crazy. In the three previous weeks before the race begins, her days start at 7 a.m. and end at 10 p.m.

Even when she takes her annual vacation in October, work comes with her, and she calls the office nearly every day. She said the rest of the staff is the same way.

Potts said she loves the work because she loves getting to know the mushers and all of the others associated with the race. "There's not anywhere I can go where I don't know somebody," she said.

Amazingly, she remembers almost all of their names. And it's quite likely that she has provided helped to them somewhere along the way.

"That's just who I am," Potts said. "I try to make people happy and help them with what they need."

 


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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