For nearly three decades, Hank Pennington gave outdoor advice in this newspaper. He used humor, experience and his expertise in biology to educate and guide Kodiakans across the vast landscape of the Emerald Isle.
Hank’s last Outdoor Kodiak column appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror on July 23. He died at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center on July 29 from a heart attack. He was 68.
“The common basis of his life, through his occupation and his writing, is that he wanted to share and educate the public about all of the things that were possible,” said Jan Pennington, his wife of 49 years. “His articles were informative and entertaining so people could be engaged. He wrote so everyone could understand it and hopefully gain an enthusiasm for hunting, fishing and hiking.”
Hank’s first column appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror on June 8, 1990. The column was about Dolly Varden. Due to the season cycle of outdoor activities in Kodiak, it’s no surprise that Hank was again praising these feisty trout in his final column on July 23. In his first KDM column in 1990, Hank explained his vision for the column, which became a must-read for outdoor enthusiasts for 29 years.
“It is my hope that in this column I can share insights about Kodiak gained over the last 15 years, with special help for beginners, as well as new ideas for those with more experience,” he wrote in 1990. “As the seasons change, so will this column change from fishing to hunting, and I’ll probably lead you into other nontraditional outdoor activities, as well.”
Cecil Ranney, the editor of the Kodiak Daily Mirror at the time, remembers Hank pitching the column to publisher Nancy Freeman. Freeman bit and the rest is history.
“Hank’s column was probably one of the most read of all the columns that we had,” said Ranney, who lived next to Pennington in Chiniak for years. “I know a lot of people cut it out and had scrapbooks of Hank Pennington columns.”
Hank was born on December 16, 1950, in Silver City, New Mexico, to Gwena Jean Pennington (currently living in Port Townsend, Washington) and Clarence Ray Pennington (deceased). He grew fond of the outdoors by biking three miles — one way — into the desert to get to a cow tank that was stocked with bluegill. His maternal grandfather taught him to fish and to drink cowboy coffee: canned milk and a touch of coffee for color.
“As Hank roamed the desert, his fascination with the plants, animals and native culture blossomed,” Jan wrote in a letter to the Kodiak Daily Mirror. “The freedom and ability to explore wherever and whenever fueled all his outdoor activities for the rest of his life — hunting, fishing, artifact hunting, Native ruin exploration and photography. Whether he was in the field or in the bookstore or library, he had an insatiable curiosity.”
In the early 1960s, Hank’s parents moved west to Bakersfield, California. It was there where he found Jan. They met in college. Jan’s maiden’s name was Poor, so they were always in the same group for school functions.
“We got along and the basis of it is that we had a lot in common,” Jan said. “I grew up doing outdoors stuff — my dad ran a sporting goods store.”
They married on Nov. 28, 1969, and had two daughters — Christine (deceased) and Linda, who is currently living in Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband, Jeffery Randall, and daughter, Alyssa.
“He was my partner in everything. He was my motivator,” Jan said.
In 1975, Hank hooked a job with the University of Alaska as the marine advisory agent in Kodiak. His work for Alaska Sea Grant was groundbreaking. He founded the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and helped get the National Fishing Vessel Safety Act through Congress. He was also instrumental in developing Coastal Zone Management plans and in cold-water survival programs — he helped the Fishermen’s Wives establish the Norm Holm Memorial Survival Suit Race that happens during Kodiak’s annual Crab Festival.
He retired from the University of Alaska in 1997. He received the national William Q. Wick Visionary Career Leadership Award from Alaska Sea Grant in 1998 and was honored with the U.S. Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award.
“He was a great person and had a real heart for Kodiak and the people of Kodiak,” said Jerome Selby, former Kodiak Island Borough mayor. “He worked tirelessly on their behalf. He touched most of the lives in Kodiak and probably two-thirds of the people never knew he was involved and what they benefited from.”
As mayor, Selby helped Hank secure funding for marine advisory programs. The two stayed in touch long after each of them left their positions. Selby is scheduled to be the master of ceremony at Hank’s celebration of life at Harbor Convention Center from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 7.
“He was such a contributor to the Kodiak community; we ought to come together and celebrate all that he did for us. Send him off right,” Selby said. “He is one of those people who are truly going to be missed — it will leave a little hole in our community.”
Hank played an influential role in nearly every life he crossed.
Jane Eisemann, a retired educator, met Hank after arriving in town in 1976. She said he was always coming up with ideas to make money through fishing. He became a mentor for Eisemann when she started teaching maritime science and technology at Kodiak High School. She said he was “a bigger than life presence that made things happen.”
“Hank was always there,” Eisemann said. “A lot of the training videos with AMSE (Alaska Marine Safety Education Association) had Hank in them. Every year I got this big dose of Hank, if not in person, in videos. He was just this man that brought wonderful things into my classroom.”
Stacy Studebaker met Hank while she was struggling to reel in a 22-pound silver salmon from a lake in Pasagshak in the early 1980s. She was in a kayak, while Hank and Christina were in a canoe.
“I had never met Hank before, but he is such a striking individual with a very deep voice,” Studebaker said. “They come paddling up very slowly, and he says, ‘Well, young lady, I don’t want to intrude but would you like a little help with that fish.’ I said, ‘Oh yes, please help.’”
Studebaker and Hank became great friends after that encounter. In the 1990s, he helped Studebaker with the Kodiak Gray Whale Project from start to finish. Hank — a brilliant nature photographer before the era of digital photography — photographed the whale’s bones.
“He went through the skeleton one by one and photographed every single bone,” said Studebaker, a retired teacher. “I have that bone catalog and it is unique. I had heard nobody had ever done that with a gray whale skeleton.”
Hank dabbled in a variety of things, but it was the outdoors that was in his DNA. He was generous with his knowledge, too. He never turned down a chance to tell a story or help a struggling fisher.
“He would come into my office or chat across the counter and recite something that happened to him, which was always interesting because he found interest and knowledge in fault and success,” said Jesse Glamann, owner of Big Ray’s in Kodiak. “Hank was a pretty big mentor to me. When I was hitting the wall and not finding the fish, I would call him at night, and he was always willing to share what he had experienced.”
Glamann started tapping into Hank’s knowledge base when he was 15 years old. Decades later, they created a professional friendship when Hank began teaching fly-fishing and fly-tying classes at Big Ray’s.
Stories and memories of Hank flooded Facebook last week, which demonstrated how beloved he was to the people of Kodiak. People knew him as the outdoor columnist, but his life encompassed a lot more than writing.
“Hank was one of my first mentors when I moved to Kodiak in the 1980s,” Kodiak Daily Mirror fish columnist Laine Welch wrote on Facebook. “I learned so much from him when he was a Sea Grant adviser. Always so kind and patient and so excited about the land and sea glories all around him. I hope he’s on his best adventure ever.”
Many made it clear they had grown as outdoor enthusiasts, as well as people because of him.
“This is such a sad loss for the Kodiak community,” KMXT’s Maggie Wall wrote. “Hank was a local treasure. He willingly shared his extensive knowledge of Kodiak nature and how to enjoy time in it. I am a better person for having known Hank and learned much from him.”
Hank made a lasting impact not only in Kodiak, but throughout the state.
“Hank made an incredible contribution to Kodiak and to Alaska; he will be dearly missed. May Jan and Linda be comforted by the knowledge of the many lives he touched during his amazing journey,” Kodiak resident Sandra Jackson wrote.
For Studebaker, Hank embodied all the majestic power of a great redwood tree.
“I would call Hank an icon,” Studebaker said. “When I heard the news about him we (my husband and me) were sitting on the couch and I was just beyond grief. Here is this tall man with striking red hair and I just thought the great red one has fallen.”