Letter: Kelsey truly an authentic Alaska game-changer

September 4, 2013 

John Kelsey was a gentleman and a gentle man. His death (obituary, Tuesday) saddened many, but what a life he lived.

He left Alaska in the mid-1930s to study engineering at Stanford. There, walking to class, John crossed paths with former President Herbert Hoover, a resident scholar.  Soon the two began meeting daily, walking and chatting. Pretty amazing for a young man from Valdez!  

He served honorably in the U.S. Navy during WWII. One night on deck, he glanced down to see a torpedo heading straight for his PT boat. No time for evasions, he waited for the explosion. Inexplicably, it went under the boat, missing it completely.

John was running the family business, the Valdez Dock Company, in 1964 when the Good Friday earthquake and its ensuing tsunami hit. He watched as 30 people were swept away with the dock. Had he accepted an earlier invitation to join the steamship Chena’s captain for dinner, John may very well have lost his life as well.  

His importance to the state’s development was enormous. In “Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska,” author John Strohmeyer describes John meeting with the oil companies late at night in the Captain Cook hotel. He persuaded them to choose Valdez as the terminus for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Perhaps one of the reasons why he accomplished so much was a positive can-do attitude, as reflected in this quote from “Valdez: A Brief Oral History.” 

“People have a tendency to say there is no use getting excited about this or that because if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen. … I don’t agree with that. If we hadn’t gone out and worked hard to get the pipeline terminal here, we would never have gotten it. That I’m sure of as I am of sitting here. … You can’t sit back and make things happen.” 

Amen. Rest in peace, John. 

— Jeff Pantages



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