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In living memory: Anchorage renaissance woman plans her own 'premortem funeral'

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 11, 2015

Jean Merrie Borrill Paal was born in Minneapolis to Bob and Mary Borrill on Christmas Day, 1926. A funeral party is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at the Hotel Captain Cook.

But if you're now expecting to read the date of her death, you won't find it here. At the age of 88, the renaissance woman is still alive.

Her physical health is good, though her energy level is fading, said her daughter, Joan Paal-Fridley. Paal's main concern is accelerating memory loss.

"I have no idea how long she may live, but I do know her ability to remember things about her life diminishes daily," Paal-Fridley said.

So, with her mother's enthusiastic approval, Paal-Fridley has arranged a "premortem funeral" for Paal's many friends, an opportunity to record and share memories while the not-yet-deceased is still around to enjoy them.

"Too often I've heard people say that they wish they'd told someone who'd died how much they had meant to them," Paal-Fridley said. "The time to say this to Jean is now."

The idea of attending her own funeral will not be all that strange to those who know Jean Paal. She's always done things her own way.

When there was no money for college, she enrolled in an aircraft maintenance program that paid her to learn. When post-war New York was too crowded for her, she moved to Anchorage. When Alaska Airlines laid her off after she became pregnant, she had three daughters in fairly short order and went back to work, eventually becoming the first woman in the country to manage ground services for Western Airlines. When her husband became ill, she worked from home, where she used her excellent math skills to create ground-breaking ways of crunching statistics.

Paal's energetic love of theater, music, gardening, public spaces and politics is as enormous as her stature is small. Over her nearly 70 years in Anchorage, she has hosted figures like Ernest Gruening and Bill Egan at her home, attended opening night of nearly every play in town, worked with the Opera Guild and volunteered for public radio.

She grew up in a small Minnesota town before her family moved to New York City when she was 14. She excelled in math, taking five years of the subject and acing each class. With World War II underway, she attended school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., then went to work at a department store before going home and digging into chores and homework.

The little money her family had for college was earmarked for her brother, which is how she found herself at an aircraft mechanics school in Rome, New York. There, she met her husband, Victor Paal. They married in a hasty ceremony at her parents' home four days before the war ended.

The honeymooners' New York City apartment had no shower and shared a toilet down the hall with other renters. One day they both called in sick and brainstormed ideas on what to do next. Vic called Alaska Airlines and was quickly offered a job as a mechanic. They arrived in Anchorage on Dec. 17, 1945, and Jean was also hired by the airline as a payroll clerk. Living conditions were only slightly better in booming Anchorage than in New York, but in two years they were able to move into a real home of their own, "way out of town" at 11th Avenue and P Street. An article in the Anchorage Times on Jan. 24, 1948, called the house "modernistic" and noted that Paal had designed it.

After giving birth to her three daughters, she resumed working at Alaska, Northern Pacific and Western Airlines. She retired from Western at 55.

After that, she supported herself, one disabled daughter and her increasingly ailing husband by doing statistical analysis. It was work she could do at home, which she preferred.

"She didn't like to be in public," said Jean Craciun, her former employer. "But she was the second Jean at Jean Craciun Research."

Cracian said the innovative survey instruments that the company pioneered in the 1980s were created by Paal. At an age when most old people would be satisfied with retirement, Paal took computer classes, which, like the math classes she attended in high school, turned out to be a snap for her.

"She was the most amazing Alaskan woman I ever met," Craciun said. "A Mensa genius, but unschooled. She was self-taught."

Her job involved numbers, but her passion was the arts. Over the years she worked on plays behind the scenes and volunteered with the Anchorage Opera Guild, finally appearing onstage in a silent role at Anchorage Opera's world premiere of Victoria Bond's "Mrs. President" in 2012. She also worked on KSKA's "Stage Talk" radio program for about 12 years until last year, when she could no longer drive.

Her involvement in theater ranged from working backstage in a big touring production of "South Pacific" in the 1950s to helping start the Out North alternative theater organization. In recent years, she began writing plays herself and submitted some to the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, an annual event that she loved to attend. In 2007 she was a winner in the UAA/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest for her nonfiction piece "Self Control."

As an avid and respected gardener, her horticultural activities were not contained to her own yard. "She always supported interests in preserving Anchorage's greenbelt, coastal trail and historical sites," Paal-Fridley said. "Her attitude has always been that the arts are what makes life worth living, be they of the performing, historical or natural variety, they all contribute to the health and well being of each of us."

Similarly, while she loved to travel, she wasn't as interested in hitting a beach or even visiting relatives as in visiting historical locations and museums. "She has been a student of the world her entire life," Paal-Fridley said.

Jean Paal is survived by her daughters, Joan Paal-Fridley and Charlotte Paal, and several grandchildren, many of whom are, not surprisingly, involved in theater and aircraft operations. She has so far been preceded in death by her parents, her husband and her daughter, Gayle Janacek.

Her "premortem funeral" will take place 2-5 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, at the Quarterdeck in the Hotel Captain Cook. The event includes hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Admission is by photographs of Paal or memories of her that will be written down or recorded so that she can re-live the highlights of her life even after she's forgotten about them.

Joan Paal-Fridley asks her mother's acquaintances to let her know they're coming by shooting an email to joanpf@mtaonline.net, "but please come anyway if you forget" to RSVP. Cards or letters for the remembrance book may be sent to P.O. Box 520042, Big Lake, AK 99652.

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