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Claus-M. Naske, noted Alaska historian, dies at 78

Well-regarded Alaska historian Claus-M. Naske died March 5 at his home in Fairbanks after a long battle with cancer. He's pictured here as a student at UAF in the 1950s. Photo courtesy the Naske family

FAIRBANKS -- Throughout his long friendship with Claus-M. Naske, Bill Hunt wrote imaginary obituaries about his fellow history professor. Don't get the wrong idea -- he also wrote them about himself and anyone else he considered a friend, always hoping for a laugh.

Naske enjoyed the mock praise solemnly produced by Hunt, a former colleague at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Always diligent about document preservation, Naske saved the written record of Hunt humor, which was along the lines of: “Professor Naske schooled his students in matters that textbooks did not cover, including good manners, short haircuts, moose hunting and calling, partisan politics, and sensitivity to interpersonal relationships.”

Last week, Hunt took on the more difficult task of writing a real obituary about his friend. Naske, one of Alaska’s leading historians, died March 5 at his home in Fairbanks after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

 “It is not a bad thing to envy our friends who have talents and graces worth imitating,” Hunt wrote from Colorado. “Claus’s sociability with friends or strangers, so natural and spontaneous, was not anything I could hope to achieve, and I admired his ease tremendously.”

“I also envied him his many friends, recognizing how much he benefited from living in Alaska continuously from his youthful emigration from Germany. He deeply loved family, friends, America and Alaska with exuberance (he liked identifying himself as a 150 percent American, resisting my questions about his math skills).”

Hunt, like Naske a prolific historian with many noteworthy books to his credit, said there were times when he dreaded Naske’s unstoppable persistence when it was directed at him, but “we are allowed to pain our friends sometimes and have our relationships critically examined.”

“Some of his colleagues were less amused by his criticisms and complained of his ‘pushiness,’ but Claus was not too disturbed by their reactions. When he had a cause he fought for it and was not timid or gentle in expressing his displeasure to anyone. We could all do well to recall and imitate the strength and determination that fostered such 'pushiness,'" Hunt said.

That Naske approached life as a daily and intense experience was due in no small part to his background. During World War II, his father served in the German army and all of his mother’s relatives were killed because they were Jews. Naske, his sister and his mother, spent a year walking across Germany, struggling to survive.

At age 9, he was taken by Russians and forced to herd cattle. “After a while I would try to become invisible. I would jump ship so to speak to go back and find my family,” he said.

After the war, he tried to leave Germany as a teenager, seeking a sponsor in Alaska. He wrote a letter in German and had his father translate it into English. Dorothy Saxton, the U.S. commissioner in Palmer, was touched by his plea for assistance. She told Naske later there were countless letters, but “yours was just like dancing on my desk.”

 She placed an ad in the newspaper and a family agreed to sponsor him. He was later taken in by the Earl W. Barry family.

 “It was all just incredible luck,” he said. Naske arrived in Palmer, with his knowledge of English limited to "yes," "no" and "How do you do?"

The next day the 18-year-old began milking cows. “I added the word ‘pail’ to my vocabulary that day,” he said.

He finished high school in Palmer and later heard about steam-heated accommodations at the college in Fairbanks. He said he was more interested in steam heat than academics at first, but he was soon a determined scholar. He did his undergraduate work in history and political science and later earned a doctorate in history at Washington State University. He joined the faculty at UAF in 1969 and carved out a career as one of Alaska’s greatest historians.

He wrote biographies of  Alaska’s first two senators, Ernest Gruening and E.L. “Bob” Bartlett, as well as a major Alaska history textbook and a host of important works on everything from the history of the statehood movement to the Alaska Road Commission.

“I’ve been kissed by sunshine all my life. To me the United States was the land of milk and honey. It still is. Anyone who is breathing can do all right here,” he once said.

As Hunt wrote in the Naske obituary -- the real one, not the others he'd written before his friend passed away -- Naske remained a good teacher to the end:

“He was not shy in giving credit to others who helped him and to those whose accomplishments he respected. It was interesting to me that even in distress he believed that what he accomplished was worth the effort. And perhaps that is the last and best lesson he has passed on to his family and friends.”

The Naske family is planning a memorial potluck April 12 at the Elks Lodge in Fairbanks at 5 p.m.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.