Fairbanks school bearing name of 'founding pedophile' sparks renaming debate

FAIRBANKS — Badger Road Elementary School is not on Badger Road. It's 2/10ths of a mile away on Bradway Road.

But that's not why the vice president of the Fairbanks School Board wants to remove the name Badger from the list of local schools and replace it with something more suitable.

I have a suggestion to make on that regard — to honor a woman whose inspirational story should be known by every Alaskan — but first let's talk about Badger.

In 1982, when the school east of Fairbanks was under construction, the school board named it the "Harry M. Badger Elementary School," honoring a Fairbanks pioneer and territorial legislator known as the "Strawberry King" for his gardening expertise.

Badger, who had left Burlington, Washington, in 1900, spent three years in Dawson, Yukon, before joining the early rush to what became Fairbanks. He opened the first real estate office, served as town recorder, homesteaded and established a trail that became Badger Road.

The name "Harry M. Badger Elementary School" never went up on the building, however, as the school district soon learned a startling detail about Badger's past that had been omitted from everything written about him for 65 years.

Someone in Fairbanks who knew the history informed the district that in 1916, Badger entered a guilty plea for sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl three times in the fall of 1915. "There is nothing to my mind that compares in magnitude with the violation of the person of little baby girls," the prosecutor told Judge Charles Bunnell on March 10, 1916.


The defense attorney said the mother of the 10-year-old had confronted Badger and he admitted his guilt, the Fairbanks Sunday Times reported, "knowing full well that such confession would mean the loss of his standing in the community, of his reputation, of his respect."

The newspaper accounts said that Bunnell, the defense attorney and the prosecutor agreed that the damage done to Badger's reputation from the publicity would be his greatest punishment. He didn't get the maximum sentence, which would have been 18 months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Bunnell, later the first president of the University of Alaska, fined him $750 and gave him six months in jail. Badger's attorney said he believed pedophilia was a mental disorder and the man was not entirely to blame for what happened.

An editorial in the Alaska Citizen newspaper said a young Native man had received a 10-year sentence for statutory rape and charged that Bunnell had let Badger off easy because he had influential friends and a good reputation before his indictment.

"The crime for which Mr. Badger pleaded guilty was far more serious than that of the case of the Indian, though the laws of the territory are very lax and the punishment very inadequate," the newspaper said.

"The people of the community cannot help but marvel at the inequality of the sentences and justly," the Citizen said.

Badger served his time, stayed in Fairbanks, farmed for a quarter-century and restored his reputation enough to win election to the Legislature in 1944. He referred to himself as the "Strawberry Man" in his campaign ad and said, "It might not do any harm to have a farmer down among the lawmakers to kind of look things over."

Badger chose to stay in a community where people knew his past. He never married or had children and died in 1965 at the Pioneers Home in Sitka, with his conviction of a half-century earlier having long since faded into oblivion.

It would have stayed that way had a North Pole committee not proposed his name for the elementary school in 1982. Informed of Badger's child abuse record, the district could hardly honor him with a school name. Instead, it honored the road named for Badger, though the building is not on that road.

This convenient dodge has not been a secret in Fairbanks, though it has rarely been publicized since the school opened.

Times and attitudes change, however, along with our views of how we treat incidents and people from the past. Badger earned the respect of others in the decades that followed his guilty plea, but that doesn't mean his name belongs on a school.

We have another school in Fairbanks named after a man with a criminal record. The Barnette Magnet School, formerly Barnette Elementary School, is named after the founder of Fairbanks, but his transgressions dealt with money, not kids.

Learning the Badger name is indirectly linked to a man with a child abuse record strikes Mike O'Brien, a Fairbanks lawyer who serves on the school board, as a mistake that can be corrected.

"History is replete with revered figures with imperfect morals, but emblazoning a local elementary school with the name of our community's founding pedophile is wrong," O'Brien wrote recently.

The board plans to hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 10 at Badger Road Elementary to hear from people with opinions on the matter. Removing his name could be on the board agenda by November. The school mascot is the Brown Bear, so that wouldn't change.

There is a road named after Badger, a slough and a Fairbanks street. That's enough. Changing the name of the building is not the most important school issue in Fairbanks, but it's not a hard call to make either. The school board has already said it won't spend much time on this and rightly so, given the financial challenges facing the district.

What I feel much more strongly about is the name I would put forward as a replacement. If  the name is changed, the school district has a chance  to honor a true champion for children and education more than three decades after her death.


The name that comes immediately to mind is one of the great heroic figures in the history of Fairbanks, a quiet and unassuming woman whose body was beaten by polio but whose spirit would not break — author and journalist Jo Anne Wold. I'll tell you about her in my next column.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.