Every day for the past 40 years, Phyllis Clough has gotten to work early.
“I think it’s important to be on time and be committed to whatever you choose to do,” she said last week.
Those are not just words. Clough is an aide, secretary and cook at Old Harbor School. For the past four decades, she’s been a pillar at the school and in the community in general, ushering the village’s young people into adulthood.
For her work and dedication, she was recently named the National Education Association Alaska’s Educational Support Professional of the Year. It’s the award NEA gives out every year, and it honors the support staff who do the behind-the-scenes, often thankless work to keep schools running from Old Harbor to Utiagvik. Last year it went to Daryl Walker, an electrician in Fairbanks.
The Kodiak Island Borough School Board announced the award last week, but Clough learned about it the week before.
It was welcome news after a difficult few weeks. Her mother, Mary Hakaanson, was sick and at the hospital in Anchorage recently. Clough spent 27 days with her while she recovered. She had just gotten back to work on a Monday when Geoff Bechtol, who teaches sixth through 12th grade at Old Harbor, told her she had to be in a meeting with the whole school.
That’s when she learned she got the award.
“I was overwhelmed and shocked and happy,” she said.
“I feel honored, but I feel like there’s so many more people who deserve this more than me.”
At the Board of Education meeting on Monday, Clough and NEA President Tom Klaameyer were virtually in attendance to celebrate the announcement. Clough will also be honored at NEA’s January’s delegate assembly.
“I think Phyllis is the first educational support employee who also qualifies for the teacher of the year because Phyllis is a teacher,” Superintendent Larry LeDoux said.
“She models character and love and confidence and peace for many, many students.”
Klaameyer, who in normal times would have traveled to Kodiak to present the award, said he regretted that he couldn’t be there, but had heard plenty of good things about Clough.
“You might be the nicest person who I’ve never met,” he said.
Clough was born and raised in Old Harbor. She joined the school staff before she turned 20 years old.
For the next 28 years, she was an aide, helping teachers with whatever they needed. In 2008, her role expanded. She now handles secretarial duties and cooks meals for the students.
Her days are filled with helping kids read, answering phones, cooking pizza, spaghetti or meatloaf for the students and staff, and generally helping keep the place running.
“I love my job. And when you love your job, it’s not a job,” Clough said.
“We have to be a safe place for the kids, and that’s what I love most about my job.”
Cooking is one way she helps create that safe place for the village’s young, and her culinary skills have made her something of a legend in Old Harbor and beyond.
She was a fisherwoman for a time, and cooked meals for herself and the crew. And when groups need feeding in Old Harbor, such as construction workers building a new dock, or elsewhere on the archipelago, such as for kids camps like Dig Afognak, Clough makes the meals.
She also makes turkey luncheons during the week before the students head home for Thanksgiving, and Christmas dinners for others in the community. When National Geographic came to Kodiak to shoot a documentary about bears, Clough hosted the crew.
“I just like to make sure everyone is fed and happy and well,” Clough said.
She’s also often the point person for welcoming new teachers, who often come from elsewhere in Alaska, to the Old Harbor community.
“I’ve experienced firsthand the generosity that Phyllis gives everybody that walks into this school at Old Harbor,” Rural School Principal Peggy Azuyak said.
“She takes each new community member and new employee under her wing and makes them feel at home and makes sure they have what they need.”
The school has changed over the decades Clough has been there. Like many remote villages in Alaska, people are leaving Old Harbor. When she first started, there were around 70 students at the school.
Today, there are 28. But Clough sees some families returning to Old Harbor.
“Younger families just want to be home and raise their kids in a smaller community,” Clough said.
And Clough, who also serves on a number of boards and committees throughout Old Harbor, is just one of the people making the village a place people want to come back to.
She doesn’t know how much longer she’ll keep after it. She’s passionate about her work. Retirement sounds dull.
“When you love your job, it makes it so much easier to get up every day and be here for the kids,” Clough said.