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Legacy of Talkeetna icon Roberta Sheldon extended far beyond aviation

Colleen Mondor

Roberta Bille Reeve Sheldon lived a life that spanned both the globe and significant periods of Alaska's history as a territory and then a state, but had perhaps its most profound impact in the community she made her home for five decades.

"I feel as if I've just come home," she told her mother the first day she stepped foot in Talkeetna. That feeling stayed with her for 50 years, until her death last week at home in that tight-knit Alaska community about 115 miles north of Anchorage.

From a childhood as part of a storied Alaskan family, to a flight-attendant career where she visited cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Roberta embraced a wide view of the world that found her nevertheless returning to Alaska as a young woman.

In Alaska's aviation community, Roberta Sheldon's story always begins with mention of her parentage. Born in Seward in 1940, she was the eldest daughter of Bob Reeve, who pioneered the use of skis on mudflats and revitalized Valdez's mining industry with his flights to the claims surrounding the town. Popularly known as "the glacier pilot," Reeve would go on to be the only bush pilot under exclusive military contract during World War II. He then established Reeve Aleutian Airways in 1947, which dominated air routes along the Aleutian Islands for decades.

For the climbing community, Roberta Sheldon is part of the larger story of Denali, and Talkeetna's relationship with that mountain. In articles and books on that subject she is always mentioned in tandem with husband Don Sheldon, arguably the most famous pilot to ever fly on Denali. Don Sheldon was widely known and respected for owning and operating Talkeetna Air Service.

In his book "Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings," climber David Roberts recalls the positive impact Roberta had on the company: "We met Roberta that summer [1965]. She was strikingly pretty, a slender woman with dark black hair. Somewhat shy, she had a sharp intelligence that she had put to work acting as Don's radio operator and bookkeeper. She also devised a chart to keep track of pick-up dates and parties; no longer would Sheldon file the whereabouts and needs of his myriad clients only in his head."

The couple were often presented as an Alaskan ideal to Outside readers, perhaps no more so than in a Life magazine article from 1964 -- the year they were married, which described the couple thus:

This year Sheldon married Roberta Reeve, the pretty young daughter of Bob Reeve, one of the great pioneer bush pilots of the 1930s. Of course they took a flying honeymoon, and on it Sheldon made one of his rare miscalculations. Somewhat bedazzled by the presence of his bride as he landed on a frozen lake, he taxied too close to the outlet and the plane plunged through the thin ice. Bride and groom took an icy dunking and the embarrassed Sheldon had to send a sheepish Mayday call to get some pilot buddies to fly up and help get his plane out. But the wedding night drenching didn't seem to bother Roberta, and she has no intention of trying to change her husband's ways.

"I wouldn't try to keep him grounded if I could," she says. "Besides I know he can take care of himself." She says it firmly, as if she means it. Yet every night when Sheldon's plane bounces down on his abbreviated airstrip, Roberta comes running out to greet him with a great bear hug, as if, well, that's one more day he has come home.

After Don Sheldon's death from cancer in 1975, Roberta sold Talkeetna Air Service and became office manager of Genet Expeditions. Ray Genet was famous as a pioneer of the West Buttress route on Mount McKinley and member of the three-man team who made the first successful winter ascent of the mountain in 1967. Sheldon worked for Genet until his death in 1979 on a return climb after summiting Everest.

In the 1980s and '90s Roberta's focus on Talkeetna became razor sharp. And while she never wholly distanced herself from flying or mountaineering -- she even soloed on Ruth Glacier for her 40th birthday -- the love she had for the area propelled her into a more activist role. It was a calling she articulated well to author Joe McGinniss in "Going to Extremes" published in 1980: "I can't imagine living anyplace else. I feel my destiny is right here ... I'm thinking of writing. I would like to try to get what this town is down on paper. I'd like to capture the humor of the town, the independence, the way the land has shaped the people and just the fine values of living here."

Determined to provide, as her son Robert Sheldon explained in a recent phone call, "a comprehensive overview of Talkeetna back to the Native history," she wrote "The Heritage of Talkeetna" which delves into the origins of the settlement. She followed this up with "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders," a deep look into a string of mining-related killings in 1939.

"She chose that event to research," explained Robert Sheldon, "because it marked a turning point for Talkeetna. After those crimes people came to understand that the worst could happen, that the old rules and codes no longer applied. Then land use plans happened, the community plans were formed, the Talkeetna region changed."

Roberta was not content, however, just to study the past. She became heavily involved in community matters, serving 11 years on the Talkeetna Community Council, nine of them as chairwoman. She was on the Board of Directors for the Talkeetna Historical Society for 13 years and the Talkeetna Comprehensive Land Use Committee for six. Gov. Jay Hammond appointed her to the Denali Subsistence Resource Committee and Gov. Tony Knowles appointed her to the Consultation Committee for Southside Denali Development. The list of accomplishments goes on and on.

According to daughter Kate Sheldon, Roberta " ... was extremely proud that Talkeetna turned out to be The Model for commercial land-use in the State of Alaska," something of particular value to the large touring companies so prevalent in the area during the tourist season.

Further, according to son Robert Sheldon, "Pretty much any environmental project south of the Brooks Range my mother has been involved in on some level."

This was especially true of the proposed Susitna Dam project which Roberta was instrumental in fighting for years. As recently as 2012 she was on record against the dam, writing in The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman: "Some might think that a dynamite river with Alaska-caliber fish runs, together with a small, entrepreneurial town with a strong work ethic and economy, are worth sacrificing for an exorbitantly priced dam. Or, that the health of almost countless named and un-named tributaries and side-sloughs that harbor spawning salmon from the mouth of Cook Inlet to the proposed dam site doesn't count. Don't bet on it."

Coupled with her activism, Roberta's dedication to preserving Talkeetna's past and future extended to the purchase of historic buildings and making sure that history was visibly shared with the many visitors who come to the community every year. According to the State of Alaska Historic Preservation Office, she worked to get the Talkeetna Historic District established and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and the historic Talkeetna Village Airstrip listed, which happened on August 2, 2002. She also worked with the Denali Arts Council to acquire the old Talkeetna Air Service hangar and lot, which is now the home of the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar.

Perhaps most famous among the climbing community is Roberta's steadfast preservation of the Mountain House, a shelter constructed by Don Sheldon and friends in 1966 on the South Face of Denali. Located on a 5-acre rock and ice outcrop at the 6,000-foot level, in the middle of what is now known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater of the Ruth Gorge, the Mountain House is managed by Alaska Mountaineering School but firmly owned by the Sheldon family. Aerial tours of the Mountain House are available through several Talkeetna air taxis including Sheldon Air Service, owned and operated by Don and Roberta's daughter Holly and her husband.

"My mother lived her life with discipline and dignity," said Robert Sheldon. Her legacy, found from Ruth Glacier to the banks of the Susitna and along the streets of Talkeetna, is certainly one that many Alaskans can aspire to. "She taught us if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right," says her son. Roberta's entire life is a testament to this credo and the mark she has made on Alaska's history is one that should not soon be forgotten.

A celebration of life for Roberta Sheldon is planned for June 22 at 4 p.m. in the Sheldon Arts Community Hangar in Talkeetna. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be mailed to the Talkeetna Defense Fund at P.O. Box 292, Talkeetna, AK 99676. Both of Sheldon's books can be purchased at bookstores across Alaska or direct from the Talkeetna Historical Society.

Reach Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By COLLEEN MONDOR
colleen@alaskadispatch.com