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Joe Delia: A winner who never raced

Joe Delia never ran the Iditarod, but it's hard to imagine the race without him. Even though he officially retired as the Skwentna checker after the 1997 race, the checkpoint was still at his house last year. And Delia was still to be seen doing this and that -- unofficially.

"He understands dogs and mushers. He understands Alaska. He's somebody who brings everything to the table," former trail veterinarian and race president Bob Sept said in 1997.

Delia has lived in Skwentna for more than 50 years, and his home has served as the checkpoint there since the Iditarod began in 1973.

Both the race and the country around Skwentna have changed since then, but Delia's open-door hospitality has been a constant -- warm as a well-stoked stove and more dependable than the snow.

And the race depended on it. Race manager Jack Niggemyer says he never had to worry about how the checkpoint ran at Skwentna.

In addition to running the checkpoint, Delia and his wife, Norma, trained a core crew of 22 from the community. Some years, they fed almost 400 people in their two-story house.

Delia made room for everybody. In some years Skwentna became a sudden circus of planes, dogs, mushers, day-trippers, media and race officials. Delia was patient and kind, ready to help, swift to laugh.

Niggemyer recalled a night when a crowd of visitors slept on Delia's floor. He just listened as Delia and Iditarod champions Joe May and Dick Mackey told stories. Niggemyer said he felt that he was "in the company of a master."

Delia has given the Iditarod a gracious way station for more than two decades, but he's also graced the race simply by who he is.

As John Larson, a former Channel 2 newsman who covered several Iditarod races, said: "If you think the real Alaska is gone, you've never had the privilege" of meeting Joe Delia.

Inducted 1997 Greatest accomplishment Being Joe Delia. Vital stats Born: Kansas City, Mo. Hometown: Skwentna Age: 80 Positions held Trail breaker and handyman, 1973-77 Skwentna checker, 1978-81, 1983-97 Race judge, 1982 Other contributions Helped survey trail before first Iditarod. Has for years put in the trail to and from his checkpoint.