By Clark Fair
When Harold Daubenspeck, owner of the Kenai Packers cannery near the mouth of the Kenai River, walked into the Seattle-Tacoma airport Oct. 6, 1959, he expected nothing out of the ordinary. He was there, as he had been so many times before, to pay for a ticket so he could make a routine flight to Anchorage on Pacific Northern Airlines.
But this transaction was not as simple as the rest had been. According to a December 1959 Alaska Sportsman account of the incident, Daubenspeck, who operated his Kenai cannery for more than 30 years, was greeted by PNA president Arthur Woodley, who presented the fisheries mogul with 10 shares of PNA stock and told him his ticket that day was free of charge.
He also received a kiss from the stewardess.
It turns out that Daubenspeck had just become the airline’s millionth passenger in 27 years of flying in and around, and to and from, Alaska.
The magazine quoted Daubenspeck, who died last year at the age of 95: “I’ve made the trip so often I guess it’s the law of averages working. Back in 1937 I used to fly with Art Woodley and Dave Kellogg in Travel Airs. I never dreamed their little Bush line would grow up and carry a million passengers!”
Best growth in the state
Most people who lived on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s would likely acknowledge that it was a decade of spectacular change. On the heels of the 1957 discovery of commercial quantities of oil near Swanson River, came staccato bursts of money and economic booms — more schools, more subdivisions, more trailer courts, a shopping mall, heavy industry, hospital construction and the Borough Building.
In March 1969, the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research produced an official statistical look at this growth as part of its “Alaska Review of Business and Economic Conditions.” The publication announced that Kenai and the Cook Inlet area had the state’s highest per-capita income increase from 1961 to 1967.
In the city of Kenai, average income had increased a whopping 263 percent, outpacing second-place Prince of Wales at “only” a 173 percent increase. By comparison, incomes during that same period in Anchorage had increased 22 percent, in Fairbanks 38 percent, and in Juneau 8 percent.
The report also cited Kenai’s “healthy rate of employment” as a sign that the prosperity — while likely to slow — was not going to disappear any time soon. In both 1967 and 1968, Kenai issued approximately $7.5 million in building permits, and the city was predicting $3 million more in such permits for 1969.
Upon hearing the figures, Kenai City Manager James W. (Bill) Harrison told The Cheechako News that he predicted a continuing bright future, and a natural slowing of such explosive economic growth. He said that a 20 percent to 25 percent growth per year seemed more realistic.
The job no one seemed to want
The difficulties began innocuously enough. On the front page of the Saturday, July 19, 1969, edition of The Cheechako News, was a four-paragraph story entitled “Harrison Attends Last Council Meeting.” In those four paragraphs, readers learned that James W. (Bill) Harrison, who had been Kenai’s city manager for four years, was resigning to take a similar job in Silver City, N.M.
Kenai Mayor Eugene Morin and members of the city council were sorry to see Harrison go, but they unanimously agreed to craft a letter of recommendation for him and send him on his way with hearty thanks.
Harrison’s last official council meeting took place Wednesday, July 16, and after he departed, his position was filled on an interim basis by Nels Kjelstad, who became acting city manager while the city sought a candidate to take the job permanently.
Forty people responded to the job search by sending in applications. By the time the council had winnowed that number down to 10, seven of the 10 were still interested in the job. The seven applicants remaining were then reduced to three, each of whom was brought in for an interview on Tuesday, Sept. 16.
During a special session on Sept. 18, the council unanimously selected Raymond Barth of Galt, Calif., as its choice. Barth, who had been a Galt city administrator for the three previous years, and who had spent about another decade in administrative posts elsewhere in California, accepted the job.
On the night of Saturday, Oct. 25, Barth arrived in town. On Monday, Oct. 27, he boarded an 8:30 a.m. flight and returned home to California. In a note to Mayor Morin, he said that his wife, who was to join Barth in Alaska in a few weeks, was “extremely ill,” and so he had left to be with her.
Barth, who had not even been in town long enough to take the oath of office, was replaced by Kjelstad, who once again became acting city manager.
On Tuesday, Nov. 18, it was announced that the city had voted unanimously to hire Fred W. Baxter of Victorville, Calif., as its new city manager. Baxter, who was the Victorville city manager and who held prior administrative positions in California and Korea after a 20-year Air Force career, accepted the position, which would pay him an annual salary of $22,872 (rising to $24,012 after a 90-day probationary period).
Baxter arrived on Sunday morning, Nov. 30, and was sworn in at the city council’s meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 3. The Cheechako reported that Baxter “had wanted to come to Alaska for several years,” that he “loved to hunt,” and he was “looking forward to hunting in Alaska.” Of his first impressions of his new home, he said that people “seemed much nicer here than in California.”
But on the front page of the Saturday, Dec. 13, Cheechako, this headline blared: “Kenai May Be in Market for City Manager Again.” On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 9, Baxter had pulled his car out of the parking lot at Larry’s Club and struck another vehicle moving along the North Road. He was cited for failure to yield the right of way. Afterward, according to the paper, the “innuendoes” began.
Apparently “certain city councilmen” began to make insinuations, and Baxter didn’t like them. On Friday, Dec. 12, he arranged for a letter of resignation to be passed on to the mayor, and then boarded a plane back to California. In the letter, according to the mayor, Baxter said that he “felt it was in the best interests of the city” that he resign.
Morin was disappointed in Baxter’s decision and refused to accept his resignation. He made a personal call to Baxter in California, asked him to reconsider, and gave him 24 hours to think it over. But Baxter never called back, and so the Kenai City Council went looking again while Kjelstad resumed his now-familiar duties.
Finally, Kenai found its man a week later. In a Saturday, Dec. 20, Cheechako article titled “Kenai Has Another New City Manager,” the mayor announced that it had accepted Baxter’s resignation and agreed unanimously to hire Ormond O. Robbins, a manager with the Federal Aviation Administration in Anchorage. Robbins, who had previously held the same FAA position in Kenai, claimed to be delighted to move back to the peninsula.
And the city of Kenai had a merrily managed Christmas after all.