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McCarthy’s crusading frontier newspaperman dies, and with him the Wrangell St. Elias News

Michelle Theriault Boots
Rick Kenyon, publisher of the Wrangell St. Elias News in McCarthy, Alaska, died Aug. 5 at age 67.
Courtesy of Bonnie Kenyon

In the wilderness hamlet of McCarthy, Rick Kenyon was the preacher, newspaper editor, propane salesman, official weather observer and often the loudest agitator against what he viewed as incursions of the federal government on frontier Alaska life.

Kenyon died Aug. 5 after a heart attack. He was 67.

Not everyone in McCarthy agreed with Kenyon, a tall man who wore a bushy beard and started each day with coffee and Bible study.

But many have a hard time imagining the town without him.

“When someone like Rick departs a community, you just stand there scratching your head in shock, wondering how you can go on,” said Kenyon’s friend Ray Kreig, an Anchorage property rights activist who owns land in McCarthy.

Among the losses: The Wrangell St. Elias News, a tiny newspaper that chronicled the big and small dramas of the region.

From a cabin across the Kennicott River from town, Kenyon and his wife had, since 1992, published the paper bimonthly. Its  motto was “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and its subscriber base far exceeded the population of McCarthy, which hovers around  20 or 30 in winter.

With Kenyon gone, the last issue will likely be published this fall, said Kenyon’s wife, Bonnie.

"Called by God"

Rick Kenyon was born in Flint, Michigan and raised in Florida. He moved to Alaska in the 1970s with his wife and son, Rick Jr., because he felt “called by God,” Bonnie Kenyon said.

It took her a while to come around to the idea of uprooting their family to go north, where she imagined “polar bears hiding behind every tree.”

At first, the family lived in Valdez, where Rick Kenyon worked as an airplane mechanic. But Kenyon felt Valdez was not the wilderness God had called them to.

A pilot friend flew them to McCarthy, where a few families were living in the wilds near the ruins of an old mining town.

They moved right away and began building a cabin. In the early days, they eked out a living with odd jobs and quickly made themselves indispensable to the town, operating the only ham radios around.

“If you need to get a message out, you had to go down there,” said Kenny Smith, a longtime McCarthy resident and friend of the Kenyons.

They missed the 1983 mail plane massacre, in which a quiet part-time resident from California killed six of the 22 people who lived in town.

They held Bible study groups in their home. When the McCarthy-Kennicott Church was built -- the first ever in McCarthy -- Rick Kenyon became the pastor.

Unlikely newspaper owners 

In the early 1990s, they became unlikely newspaper owners.

“Neither of us were great in English in school,” Bonnie Kenyon said. “Or we would never have had any inkling this was part of God’s plan for us to do.”

They first handed out a few stapled pages of the Wrangell-St. Elias News at  a community Fourth of July parade.

The newspaper grew in size and scope.

Bonnie Kenyon wrote a column about the over-the-fence neighborly life in McCarthy: Who had just pickled cabbage for winter. Whose grandchildren had visited from Tucson. Who was working on their ATVs, and whose garden had been pillaged by moose.

“It detailed people's lives out here,” she said.

When Kenyon detected what he saw as bureaucratic overreach by the National Park Service, he took his crusade to the pages of his newspaper. He also voiced strong opinions about improving the road to McCarthy.

His wife says he considered himself a watchdog. He sometimes lost friends because of it.  

“He stepped on toes doing it. We understood that. We wanted to be true to what we believed,” Bonnie Kenyon said.

It all came to a head in 2003, when a homeschooling, bluegrass music-playing religious family dressed in the clothing of another era arrived in McCarthy and became embroiled in a high-profile fight over property access with the National Park Service.

Kenyon championed the Pilgrim family’s cause in his newspaper.

Robert Hale, known as Papa Pilgrim, became a folk hero to some but was later found guilty of horrific abuse against his family.  

Kenyon had cut ties with Pilgrim long before the truth emerged, Bonnie Kenyon said.

“He didn’t have regrets about standing for access, whether it was them or anybody else,” she said. “He’d fight that issue anyways. His regrets were that we did not see the signs of abuse. If we had, we would have come out fighting for (the abused family members).”

In recent years,  tensions between McCarthy residents and the National Park Service have cooled, as had Kenyon’s stories on the pages of the Wrangell-St. Elias News.

“Rick really moderated even more than I had seen him moderate,” said his friend Smith. “He wasn’t so bombastic and opinionated as I had seen him be.”

Kenyon felt the park service’s  approach to the inholders living in the park  had improved, his wife said.

“They made some changes,” she said. “We made some changes.”

Legacy 

With Kenyon gone, McCarthy is down a pastor and  a newspaper publisher. For now, the town  still has a weather observer: Bonnie Kenyon says she’ll continue with that gig.

People might remember Rick Kenyon  for his public crusading or the Wrangell-St. Elias News, Bonnie says. But she wants more than anything that her husband be remembered for his faith.

After all, that’s what drew them to a speck of a town in the Alaska wilderness, and what she says inspired every cause Rick Kenyon took on in his life.

“That was our purpose,” she said. “That was why we came.”