Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Around 1980, Floyd Kaleak (1958-2004), an Inupiaq man from Barrow — now Utqiaġvik — moved to Anchorage. In his years here, he was a combination folk hero, spectacle and fixture. Almost everyone who lived in Anchorage during that time knew of him. He was inescapable.
At the same time, someone like Kaleak is easily forgotten. No buildings or roads are named for him. There are no portraits in a museum, no statues, placards or signage hidden around town. There are only memories. It has been more than 17 years since he died, and those memories are inevitably fading.
Kaleak was walking at 6 months but struggled to talk. He was hyperactive and prone to wandering off along the Arctic shore. His mother told the Daily News in 1987, “He finally got to be too much. Maybe he was 4 or 5. We finally started looking for placement for him.” His developmental disability meant that most of his life was spent in group homes, hospitals, specialized schools and residential care facilities.
By the time he arrived in Anchorage, after a stint at an Austin, Texas, school, he could function well enough day to day. Communication remained an issue. As he put it, he had learned “some words but not all of them.” When someone talked to him, he sometimes placed his ear close to their mouth. He was not hard of hearing, only intent on capturing the message. Repetition was the key to getting through to him.
Due to his intellectual impairment, a regular job was out of the question. He needed help to make it through life, which made him exactly like everyone else before or since. The adult Kaleak was still restless and energetic. His first home in Anchorage was a residential facility in Spenard, but he typically went there only to eat and sleep. The rest of the time, he was out wandering the streets.
Given a lack of employment options, he took to panhandling and quickly became a familiar sight around Anchorage. Spenard was his primary haunt, especially the Spenard Road and Minnesota Boulevard intersection, but he could be found all over the Bowl.
He did not just stand at the corner waiting for a handout. Instead, he was a bouncing ball of energy, seemingly delighted by everything around him. His smile was large, genuine and constant. He waved at passing cars and pedestrians. He waved at everyone. Drivers waved back. Some began to look forward to passing Kaleak on their commutes or even went out of their way to share a wave.
To Kaleak’s initial shock, people were willing to hand him money, sometimes to throw money at him. This realization was the beginning of his long-term trouble with the Anchorage Police Department. Some of that money landed in the street, and Kaleak would wander into the lane to retrieve it. Officers repeatedly warned him that panhandling was illegal, that he could not walk into busy roads.
Kaleak never quite understood the problem. When the cops stopped him panhandling in front of a grocery store, he moved down the block. When the cops returned, he moved to another street.
Signs were another part of his roadside performance. They were sheets of paper or cardboard or wood worn around his neck. One of the first said, “SAY HI TO FLOYD.” As the panhandling progressed, he made a new sign: “PAY FLOYD.” This version, the cops told him, was unacceptable. So he made a new sign: “UP TO YOU. PAY FLOYD.”
Rumors spread that he had obtained a license to panhandle. In 1990, he spent $50 for a business license. On the application, he described his business activities as “panhandling.” Randall Burns, then license director for the Division of Occupational Licensing, offered lukewarm support for Kaleak’s efforts for legitimacy. Burns told the Daily News, “I don’t think it’s the division’s job to determine for every individual community what is and isn’t against the law. After all, we issue licenses for escort services too.”
As far as Kaleak understood the system, he was now a legal businessman. He told the Daily News, “I make people happy.” As the police subsequently tried to explain, the license did not actually make his panhandling legal. However, the episode did add to his legend.
Of course, he was more than a panhandler. If someone needed a little monetary assistance, he gave what he had. He liked bowling and sodas. And he loved watches. He bought and returned watches repeatedly, rapidly falling in and out of love with the latest digital models.
He did have a dark side. Frustration, often from failure to understand or be understood, sometimes made him lash out. His record included arrests for trespassing, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and assault. He knocked over a salad bar at a restaurant and sometimes punched fellow facility residents. But most people understood him and his situation.
Just as he was a known quantity, so were his flaws. Still, many Anchorage residents saw him as like a saint. His happiness was infectious, and he was known for his generosity. He carved out a life for himself, and his self-determined freedom was enviable.
Kaleak’s time in Anchorage spanned eras, from the free-spending local administrations of the early 1980s to the economic depression that followed to the recovery of the 1990s. He was here before Walmart, Costco and Home Depot, and he was here when they opened. New buildings rose, streets were paved and history moved forward, but Kaleak was a happy constant. As the city evolved, longtime residents could look at Kaleak and see at least one thing that had not changed.
Then he was suddenly gone. On April 7, 2004, Kaleak died of natural causes. By then, he was living in a small house on his own except for regular caregiver visits. She was the one who found his body in a chair in front of a television.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the city grieved at the news. His death made the front page of the Daily News. Mournful letters poured into the newspaper. At their next meeting, the Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution, AR 2004-99, honoring Kaleak. It stated, “Floyd considered making others happy to be his full-time job” and “the streets of Anchorage will be less bright and friendly in his absence.”
Even Kaleak’s longtime nemesis, the police department, offered official condolences at his passing. APD spokesman Ron McGee said, “I think officers here at APD felt some affection for Floyd. Someone here said he contributed to Anchorage in the only way he could. He made his mark.”
The best way to know Kaleak is from those who knew him. The following quotes are from 2014 letters to the Daily News and a 2021 Twitter thread.
For some transplants, he was the first smiling face they saw in a new town. “One of the first of many friendly people I met when I moved to Anchorage in 1986, he waved to me from the corner of Minnesota and Spenard. I waved back, as I have every year since then when I saw him around town. ... I grieve for his family’s loss, but even more so for Anchorage’s loss of the friendliest face all about town.”
“I remember the first time I saw him. My family had just moved to Anchorage, and our first Christmas Eve here, my dad packed my brothers and sister in the car for a ride. We asked him where we were going. He replied we have to drive and wave Merry Christmas to someone very special. ... There he was waving and smiling with a BIG sign ‘Merry Christmas.’ That’s when I learned how easy it was to make someone happy, just by waving.”
In a way, Floyd was a living lesson on how to approach life. One resident said, “Floyd’s smile could always bring a smile. He was never upset when standing on the corners. ... It was from him that my now 21-year-old son learned never to judge a book by its cover. He thought, ‘What a life: Hang out and make people smile.’ When I explained years ago why Floyd was there, and why we’d drop some money or whatever, it never changed my son’s opinion. Floyd taught him to care more.”
“I hope people like Floyd are treated with more care, respect, and dignity, and that we can leave a little room for those among us who are not as fortunate, despite their minor transgressions.”
One resident quoted the Bible in reference to Kaleak: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Other locals hoped for ways to remember Kaleak. “I sincerely hope that people will stop just a moment to remember him, not for being a panhandling pain in the butt, but for being a cheerful person who didn’t let his disability get him down.”
“Floyd brought a unique spirit to our community that deserves special recognition. If we finally build a new convention center, why not name it for Floyd? Who better to welcome visitors to our city? Can’t you just close your eyes and see Floyd’s statue waving to you as you approach? Best of all, I could once again hear my wife say, ‘Look, there’s Floyd!’ The Floyd Kaleak Convention Center. Sounds great!”
“There should be a statue of Floyd on that corner. He was so loved, and to this day, I miss seeing him bouncing and dancing at Minnesota and Northern Lights.” Another person simply said, “I miss this Anchorage.”
Again, memories fade, and times change. In recent weeks, anti-panhandling signs have appeared at many Anchorage intersections, including Kaleak’s preferred Spenard and Minnesota spot. The signs state, “Panhandling prohibited on median or roadway. Contribute to the solution. Give to charities.” The state and municipal laws against panhandling are cited at the bottom.
In the municipal code, the panhandling ordinance, AMC 14.70.160, includes an editor’s note: “In Ballas, et al. v. Municipality of Anchorage, Case No. 3AN-13-04891CI, the Alaska Superior Court held that AMC 14.70.160 was unconstitutional under Article I, Section 5 of the Alaska Constitution.”
Campbell, Larry. “Police Ignore License to Beg.” Anchorage Daily News, August 1, 1990, B-1, B-3.
Campbell, Larry. “When You See Floyd, Say ‘Hi.’” Anchorage Daily News, July 26, 1987, A-1, A-9, A-10, A-11.
Conley, Bob. Letter to editor. “Let’s Come Up With a Good Way to Honor Floyd’s Friendly Spirit.” Anchorage Daily News, December 25, 2004, B-8.
Gay, Joel. “Say Goodbye to Floyd; Prominent Panhandler Dies at Age 45.” Anchorage Daily News, April 8, 2004, A-1, A-12.
“Readers Say Farewell to a Happy Anchorage Icon.” Anchorage Daily News, April 15, 2004, B-6.
Reamer, David. Twitter post. December 14, 2021, 9:00 AM. https://twitter.com/ANC_Historian/status/1470815909598035968