Neil Sargent hits 100-year mark

Neil and his wife, June, celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

If it wasn’t for the restrictions imposed by the threat of coronavirus, I’d visit Neil Sargent on May 25 to wish him a happy birthday.

But it’s not just any ol’ birthday that Neil is celebrating. He has walked 100 years on Planet Earth, and, at 100, Neil walks pretty well. 

Neil has been in an assisted living apartment, and, because of the coronavirus threat, he is not able to have visitors, including his son. 

Neil’s dearly beloved wife, the late June Elf Sargent, used to complain – in good humor— about Neil’s youthful demeanor. It just wasn’t fair that he, who was older than she, could run around like a kid let out of school. 

In his 60s, 70s and 80s, Neil was unstoppable as he repaired the cupolas of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, crafted a rock wall and refurbished a dream cabin on Shuyak Island.

How does a hard-working man, such as Neil, reach 100 years without becoming an old, old man? Perhaps his natural sense of humor has something to do with his youthfulness. Neil has managed to find humor in some dire circumstances.

Certainly the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave disaster was no laughing matter, but when Neil and June shared the story of how Neil reacted to news that the Sargents’ house had been taken by the wave, one can’t help but chuckle. Neil tried to soften the grim news with a “sour grapes” remark: “It wasn’t much of a house anyway,” he said.

Neil’s battle with squirrels at his cabin on Shuyak was conveyed in a narrative that revealed his  light-hearted attitude toward his nemesis. 

“Those squirrels, which apparently got in by climbing through a tiny hole in the floor, stuffed my boots with spruce cones,” Neil laughed. “And they knocked cups, razor blades and other things off the window sills. I put a piece of tin over the hole and mixed ammonia and water and spread it around the cabin. The squirrels moved away.” 

Neil can thank his father, Frederick Sargent, Jr., for making his dream cabin on Shuyak possible.

Like his father —Frederick Sargent, Sr. — Frederick was an adventurer. He left home at 15 to become a cabin boy on a ship. Eventually he was hired as the engineer of the steamer Dora, which made trips between Seward and Kodiak.

On one trip, the boat was lost for 28 days, Neil said. The steamer had broken down when it encountered rough weather and waters. The crew did everything it could to make things smooth. Fred “loved the sea until then. After that ordeal he never wanted to go to sea again,” Neil said.

Frederick worked at a salmon saltery in Saltery Cove and that influenced him to find a place to establish his own salter. He chose an obscure spot in Big Bay on Shuyak Island as his location. Sargent teamed up with Norwegian Ole Opheim. They operated a saltery and three smoke houses. Eventually Opheim got out of the partnership and Fred was left by himself.

Since the early 1980s, Shuyak Island has been a state park. Another park is also a part of the Sargent legacy. 

Sargent Park is located just a block away from the ferry terminal in Kodiak near the Baranof Museum/Erskine House. 

At one time a large house and barn stood in the area. It was owned by Frederick and Frevonia Sargent, Neil’s parents. 

Frederick’s father and Neil’s grandfather, Frederick, Sr., was an adventuresome entrepreneur from New Hampshire. He cut across Canada in a wagon that he had made.

He ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and a guy by the name of Hall started a freight business. They shipped supplies from Vancouver and Victoria to Sitka.

Frederick’s ultimate plan was to live in Alaska. Being a 32nd degree Mason, Frederick may have been privy to Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States before the general public knew about it, Neil surmised. Frederick, Sr., held the halyard of the American flag in the transfer ceremony at Sitka.

In his early 40s at the time, he married 18-year-old Mary Larionoff — a Tglinit Indian — through an arrangement made by her mother.

Frederick and Mary moved to Kodiak, where Frederick became the town’s first customs officer.

Marriage to an eastern man introduced Mary to a pampered life. She was cared for by attendants. Servants took care of the cooking, cleaning and other chores around the house.

At first, Mary was afraid of her new husband. She wouldn’t stay in the same room with him alone. Eventually she got over her shyness. She and Frederick had eight children.

Neil grew up in Kodiak when it was known as a quiet fishing village.

His parents raised cows, which wandered at will through the neighborhood.

When civilians and soldiers came in 1939 to build a naval base, the town quickly changed into a robust, highly populated community.

That year Neil graduated from Kodiak High School in a class of eight. 

With hopes of becoming a carpenter, he worked with Bob Tibble, a professional whom his dad had hired to build cabins.

Neil got drafted into the Army in 1942 and was shipped to the treeless, windy Aleutian Island of Amchitka where some 12,000 men were stationed. 

Neil’s outfit had the responsibility of building a 10,000-foot runway and a hangar. 

While Neil was on Amchitka, the Japanese landed on the opposite side of the island in a midget submarine. “The sub sunk and all men on board drowned,” he recalled. 

Neil spent nearly two years on Amchitka.

After the war, Neil married June Elf, a Washington girl of Scandinavian ancestry. Her mother, Severina Peterson, was from Norway and her father, Oscar Elf, was a Swedish immigrant. Oscar was a foreman for the building crew that constructed the Northern Life Tower on Third and University in Seattle.

The newlyweds came to Kodiak in 1952. 

Although Neil was a carpenter by trade, he decided to support his family by becoming a commercial fisherman. He bought the salmon seiner, Shamrock, in the early 1960s. His boys, Wayne, Stan and Fred, were his deck hands.

Throughout his long life, Neil attained to many titles including carpenter, soldier, fisherman and story teller. Now that he’s 100, I’m wondering how many more titles can be added to his credentials.

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