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‘Alaska’s flying bishop’ and his times are remembered in a reprinted biography

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: October 17, 2020
  • Published October 17, 2020

“An Angel on His Wing: The Story of Bill Gordon, Alaska’s Flying Bishop,” by Tay Thomas.

Wipf and Stock, 2020 reprint. (First published in 1989.) 256 pages. $29

“An Angel on His Wing: The Story of Bill Gordon, Alaska’s Flying Bishop,” by Tay Thomas

In February 1943, a young man left his sheltered home in North Carolina with a Bachelor of Divinity degree to serve as an Episcopal priest in Seward. On the ship north he met a young woman also headed to Seward for a secretarial job with the Army Corps of Engineers. By July, the two were married and on their way to Point Hope to replace the ailing priest there. Bill and Shirley Gordon then spent five years ministering to the people of Arctic Alaska, with Bill traveling all over the territory by boat and dogsled. In 1948, at the age of 29, he was promoted to bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska and held that position for a quarter-century. As bishop, he earned a pilot’s license and the name “Alaska’s flying bishop” for his near-constant ministerial travel around the state.

Tay Thomas — a longtime Alaskan journalist; the author of eight books; a philanthropist; and the wife of adventurer and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas Jr. — was a friend of the Gordon family and agreed to a request to write the bishop’s biography. According to a new foreword by her daughter Anne Thomas Donaghy, Thomas was nearly overwhelmed by stacks of papers and notes, interviews with over a hundred people, and hours of Bill’s own recollections; it took her four years to diligently wrestle all the material into a book. Near the end she nearly lost her friendship with her subject, who wanted to control the content, while she insisted that it was a biography, and she was the writer.

The resultant book is a fascinating portrayal of a charismatic, strong-willed, often impetuous and complicated man. It is also a look into a period of Alaska’s history and the role of religion in its change.

The Gordons' first years in Point Hope are particularly detailed, as the couple maintained a lively correspondence with family Outside — letters made available to Thomas. Although the couple faced many challenges they were ill-prepared for, their young spirits embraced the adventure of it all. They were certain in their faith of doing God’s work and never seemed to doubt that their service to the people of Alaska was His will.

The villagers at the time lived in sod homes, and winter water came from melting ice and snow. The Gordons lived in a mission house described as a “California bungalow,” shipped north in pieces and heated with a coal stove. Since the local people spoke little English, Bill worked with an interpreter who became a valued friend. Bill was impressed by the faith of the locals and carried into his life’s work an appreciation for their own spirituality and autonomy. The people of Point Hope, and the other villages in his circuit, also kindly taught him Arctic skills and — reading somewhat between the lines — kept him out of trouble.

Once he was bishop, living at the headquarters in Fairbanks, Bill’s flying adventures became legendary. He reportedly flew more than a million miles in small planes, crashing at least six times and enduring other mishaps. He was known to have little patience in waiting for weather, didn’t fuss about the weight of his loads and was careless about keeping water out of his fuel. The book’s title comes from either the well-wishes of the bishop he replaced, who reportedly wrote in a letter, “Keep an angel on your wing,” or pilot Don Sheldon who, after witnessing the wreckage of three planes Bill managed to destroy in one crash, said, “The bishop sure had an angel on his wing this time.” During this period of Bill’s energetic ministry, the priests who worked under him gave him the nickname “Go-go.”

Meanwhile, he and Shirley had four children, and Shirley spent much of her time not only tending to all the family responsibilities while her husband was gone for long periods, but acting as a gracious hostess to everyone who showed up at their door. Thomas makes clear that the family accepted that God and service came first, and if their husband and father was unavailable to them, that was the way it was meant to be. She writes, “One year alone saw over 465 overnight guests, and there were as many as five or six people other than family present at any mealtime.”

As the years went by, Bill grew increasingly concerned about what he considered the Church’s paternalism. He thought that not only should Alaska’s Native people be respected for their own traditions of dancing, whaling and self-governing, but that they should be their own church leaders. In the mid-1960s, Bill committed to changing the Church canons to allow the training and ordaining of Alaska Native Episcopal priests; by the time he retired from Alaska (to a position in Michigan) in 1974, he had ordained 27 Alaska Natives to serve their communities. (1974 was the same year that women were allowed to become Episcopal priests.) The Episcopal Church is still considerably active in Alaska today and supports the goals of Native communities, including working with Gwich’in activists in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Christianity’s role in westernizing and assimilating Native Americans and Alaska Natives has been well-told elsewhere and is often criticized for negative effects on Indigenous cultures. “An Angel on His Wing” provides a narrow look into the thinking and actions of one religion’s leading personality during what was a tumultuous time. Unfortunately, despite the author’s interviews with so many Alaskans, there is little in the book to capture the texture of village life in the time that Bill Gordon was performing marriages, christening children, sermonizing about God and bringing oranges, movies, footballs, wedding rings and sometimes health care into the lives of those who returned many kindnesses to him. Aside from very brief mentions of his concern about the effects of alcohol, his objection to betting on the Nenana Ice Classic and a “moral dilemma” related to exceeding beaver limits, there’s scant evidence of what it was to live in that time outside of the skins of Bill and Shirley Gordon. Still, this well-written biography serves as both engaging narrative and historical document.

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