By Jenny Neyman
Today’s edition marks the fifth anniversary of the Redoubt Reporter. The first Wednesday in August 2008 began the test period of whether this would be the little paper that could (… find a niche in content, attract an audience, generate community support, pay its bills and achieve a life span longer than a mistimed Alaska mosquito waking up in March).
Should is a separate question, perhaps still debatable. But after five years could, at least, has been settled in the affirmative.
The simplified answer of how that happened is as straightforward as beginning arithmetic: Readers plus advertisers equals sustainability of a community newspaper. But backing up a step to answer how and why those readers and advertisers came to be is a significantly more complex calculus, along the lines of:
John has eight apples and gives four to Sarah, who is on a detoxifying juice cleanse and skeptical of potential pesticides so gives her apples to Ethan, who loses three — along with his home, savings and retirement — from investing in subprime mortgage-backed securities, leaving him only one apple for lunch as he boards an eastbound train leaving Chicago at 4:37 p.m., headed to meet Claire, who’s trying a Paleo diet — on a train leaving New York at 8:09 a.m. …
Suffice it to say, there are many factors that govern readership and community support. Factors that, frankly, are often still as mysterious to me today as macronutrients, train schedules and investment portfolios were in the third grade.
But at least one factor has been abundantly, obviously, effusively clear from the inaugural edition of the paper, and that has been the involvement of Clark Fair — reporter, history writer and photographer extraordinaire. Lamentably, year five of the paper will be year one without Clark’s contributions, as he is soon leaving the central Kenai Peninsula for new Alaska adventures.
The mature response would be to spout some quippy wisdom about endings being new beginnings, changes bringing opportunities and the relationship between closing doors and opening windows.
My more realistic response was refusing to believe this was happening, then throwing a massive, wailing, foot-stomping, woe-is-me snit fit about the unFairness of it all. But, hey, at least I had the maturity to shut the door and do it out of sight of the windows.
Much as I don’t wanna (harumph!), I have to accept that Clark will no longer be the substantial chunk of reliable, resourceful bedrock that has helped the paper find its footing and grow. And as much as I would love to hate somebody or something for this loss, I can’t do that, either. Because if Clark weren’t the sort to look to new horizons, he wouldn’t be so valued by those of us staying on this one. His leaving to embrace new opportunities comes from the same adventurous spirit that makes him such a quality reporter and storyteller in the first place.
Irony: Proof that the universe likes to keep things quirky. See also: Full-antlered bull moose hanging out in the Fred Meyer parking lot during hunting season.
Within the scope of this community, I’ve come to know Clark a mere fraction of the amount of many peoples’ acquaintance. He was born in Whittier and moved to Soldotna as a kid when his parents claimed a homestead overlooking the Kenai River and mountains beyond. His dad, Dr. Calvin Fair, was the area’s first dentist, so the family quickly became widely known.
He graduated from Kenai High School, went off to study English and journalism at college in Montana, and came back to Soldotna after graduation. He worked for a time at the Peninsula Clarion as a reporter and photographer. (And has, incidentally, one of the more epic tales of leaving journalism I’ve ever heard. Among reporters, a good flameout story affords rock-star status. Clark is on par with Mick Jagger.)
He went to the University of Alaska Anchorage for his teaching certificate and began a 20-year career as Mr. Fair, English teacher. It’s rare to meet a Skyview kid who didn’t have Mr. Fair in school. It’s more rare still to meet a former student who didn’t also rank him as their favorite teacher. It’s easy to see why. I heard him speak recently about what it takes to be a good teacher. It’s heart, and a willingness to share it with your students.
“People have to find their own way,” he said. “That’s how you get life experience, and that’s invaluable in teaching because that’s how you connect with people.”
The overwhelming flavor of Clark’s life experience is fresh air, hooligan, wild berries and the other tastes of Alaska adventure. The outdoors was and is his preferred playground. Adventure isn’t something to be scheduled and embarked upon once or twice a year, like spring break and summer vacation. For Clark’s type, who constantly wonder what’s around the bend or over yonder peak, adventure is a daily, hourly, life-long occurrence.
When that spirit of curiosity coalesces with a sharp intellect, creative spirit, diligent documentation and the insatiable need to connect others through shared history, context and experience, it results in the epitome of a quality community journalist. In Clark’s case there’s a bonus, even more rare ingredient stewed into the mix — his depth of local knowledge.
For as long as I’ve known him, Clark has been Mr. Kenai to me. Any question I’ve posed about the history of this area he’s either known or known how to find out.
I only met him in 2008 while starting the paper. A friend mentioned another friend of his — Clark, a retiring high school English teacher who had once worked as a reporter and news photographer — and suggested I contact him about writing for the paper. Actually, demanded is more like it, and proceeded to assert comparisons to Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel, Paul Harvey and Edward R. Murrow — all of whom paled, in my friend’s description, next to Clark.
“Too good to be true,” I thought. “And if it were even a quarter true, the guy would be too sane by half to ever join my little venture.”
So I was skeptical.
I was so wrong.
From Clark’s first submission, it was clear our friend had not exaggerated. At the time I was two days away from my first press deadline, frantically squeezing every drop of productivity I could out of cheap drip coffee and my most-recent four-hour nap, taken a day and a half ago. Just as I was realizing I had no clue how I was going to fill that first week’s pages — with anything, much less anything worth reading — Clark’s email arrived.
It contained a story and photos on the Soldotna Rodeo. The lede was both locally specific and universally engaging. The quotes were full of personality. The reporting was precise and thorough. The writing was clean and tight, yet rich in details. And the photos — oh, the glorious, space-filling photos — were tack sharp, tightly cropped, vibrantly colorful and as full of motion as emotion.
Certainly more emotion than I’m generally known to display. But I am big enough to admit that, at that moment, I experienced some ocular leakage. How much was due to sleep deprivation and dried-out contacts that hadn’t been removed in three straight days I can’t say, but at least part was from the realization that this guy was good, and he was willing to work with me.
Then came his first Almanac piece, about how area homesteaders — usually women, being of smaller frame than their husbands — used to dig their own wells by hand with a coffee can, crawling deeper and deeper into sometimes 25-foot holes to strike water.
What followed were years of harrowing tales of surviving plane crashes and bear attacks. Quirky characters like Awful Knawful (Kenai’s daredevil version of Evel Knievel) and the mysterious Goat Woman of Ridgeway. Accounts of the days when making a home on the Kenai had much more literal meanings — clearing your own land, carving out your own road, felling and preparing your own logs and constructing your own cabin. Reminders of the people and events that made the central Kenai what it is today.
Who knew this place was so interesting? Clark, for one. And his regular readers now know it, too. It is not hyperbole to say that Clark’s Almanac pieces have been the most popular features of the paper. Perhaps it should hurt my pride that my articles don’t ice the reader-interest cake as well as his, but I’ve eaten up each Almanac installment every bit as hungrily as his other ravenous readers.
Believe me, Fair readers, I’m as sorry as you to see them — and him — go. We shall endeavor to continue the Almanac section in the legacy in which Clark leaves us.
And I’ll wave out the new window I do see opening as this door of Clark’s life closes — that he’s off to new adventures. Alaska is still vast, but technology cinches its far-flung corners closer than ever before.
So stay in touch, Clark. We can’t wait to hear the new stories you’ll have to tell.
Jenny Neyman is reporter and editor of the Redoubt Reporter.