By Jenny Neyman
James Fisher’s six decades in Alaska have epitomized community service.
During his working years his contributions were of a historic value that few alive today could equal — serving in the first state Legislature, advocating for improvements to the legal system, championing the political process for the public good and helping establish and sustain various community organizations.
In retirement, he still lives a life of contribution — supporting political causes, volunteering for community organizations and fundraisers, and serving on various boards and committees in Soldotna and on the central Kenai Peninsula. Though his routines are no longer the stuff of state history books he’s still cemented into local memory, particularly for something that started as unremarkably as simply showing up to arts and entertainment events, but has become a cherished comfort that no musician ever plays to a vacant room, a disinterested ear or an empty tip jar.
“Jim is at every function there is. If there are five events on a Friday night, he’s at all five of them,” said Mike Morgan, a longtime area musician.
Fisher’s attendance is ubiquitous to the point of legendary.
“He seems to be everywhere at once. If there are several things going on in town and we try to hit them all then we say we’re doing a Jim Fisher,” said Vickie Tinker.
In recognition of Fisher always showing up for music, central Kenai Peninsula musicians and his family decided to bring the music to Fisher, and held a party at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Aug. 28 to mark Fisher’s 86th birthday.
For three hours an expansive roster of musicians appeared at the microphone or by Fisher’s side, singing, playing and speaking their appreciation for the area’s undisputed biggest music fan.
There is much in the life of a musician that can end a performance on a sour note — temperamental gear, an inhospitable venue, an indifferent audience. For central peninsula musicians, many a rough gig has been tuned up by Fisher’s presence.
“Especially if you’re having an evening where you’re struggling or not feeling it, if you can focus in on one person that’s really connected to your music it gives you energy and life, and Jim is definitely one of those people. If everybody else is talking and not paying attention to you, if you just focus on Jim it’s like it gives you energy,” Tinker said.
He’ll attend the open-mic and scheduled-musician performances at Veronica’s Coffee House in Kenai weekly, and so past and current owners attended the party. Any visiting band brought in for a special community concert sees Fisher in the front row. His favorite musicians have had their favorite fan no matter where they played, in Kenai or Soldotna, or even Homer and Cooper Landing.
“It got to the point where every place and time that I played, there was Jim. And also in places where I didn’t expect to see Jim, there was Jim,” Morgan said. Most notably, Morgan and some friends once took a trip across Kachemak Bay to Halibut Cove. “And there was Jim, standing on the dock all alone staring at me and my friends tooling our little boat up. And I said, ‘Are you following me?’ And he said, ‘I think you’re the one following me.’”
Fisher was never a musician himself. His daughter, Sally Tachick, said that her parents would take she and her brother to whatever concerts came to town, but it’s not as though he was a huge music fan throughout his life, she said.
That changed when Helen passed away. Fisher decided that he would get out into the community, and music served as a venue for social interactions.
“My wife died in the year 2000, and that was the way I used to keep loneliness at arm’s length,” he said.
It’s not just that he’s there, it’s that he listens, attentively, to the good, the bad, and everything in between. But it’s the good he remembers, records and requests in the future.
“He has this little black book that he writes down songs in that he likes to hear,” Tinker said.
Getting a song in Fisher’s book is a status symbol among local musicians, something worth striving for.
“I believe Jim has made every musician on the Kenai Peninsula better, and has expanded the musical repertoire of all,” wrote Barney Wilborg, a bass player, formerly of the central peninsula, in a message read to Fisher at the party. “He does that by use of that little ever-present notebook. Jim writes down every song that every musician or ensemble plays, and then the next time he sees a different act, he asks him/her/it if he/she/it plays it. If the answer is in the affirmative, Jim asks that he/she/it play the tune; if the reply is negative, he’ll mention casually that, ‘You know, Katie Evans (or Nancy Anderson, or Jack Will and Sue Biggs, or Food For the Soul, or Dave and Matt Boyle, etc.) plays it,’ with a smile, and a barely perceptible shake of the head. Woe be the musician who doesn’t take the hint and learn that song for the next time Jim attends one of their appearances. ‘Oh, then you still don’t know it?’ accompanied by more easily perceptible head shaking and no smile.”
He’ll ask questions about the music, especially his favorites, and offer his assessments, sometimes unsolicited. But even given his career as a lawyer, Fisher doesn’t charge musicians for his advice. Quite the opposite.
“Jim became all of our unofficial business manager over the years, by asking every single one of us wherever we played, ‘Where’s your tip jar? Why don’t you have a tip jar out here?’” Morgan said.
He can’t settle in and listen until a tip jar is present and seeded with bills from his own pocket, Morgan said.
“Jim, thank you for keeping all of us musicians just barely eating,” Morgan said.
True to form, there was a tip jar at the birthday party. Also true to form, Fisher seeded it, pausing without fanfare on his way back from a coffee refill to transfer into it the contents of his wallet. It was announced later that all tips that evening would be donated to the food bank, an organization Fisher has actively supported for going on 20 years.
Because it’s not just live music Fisher shows up for, it’s a whole symphony of community causes. Roger Boyd, on the board of KDLL public radio, said it was Fisher who coined the phrase that has now become the tagline of the station’s twice-yearly on-air pledge drives.
“He says, ‘Pledge early, pledge often.’ That was Jim, he made that up, and he’ll pledge every day,” Boyd said. “So we’ll be on the air starting the drive, saying, ‘We’re just waiting for the phones to ring. Who’s going to be the first to call?’ And it’ll be Jim. He’s been such a great supporter. Not just of KDLL, but of so many things in the community.”
A wide variety of the community attended Fisher’s birthday party to celebrate the impact he’s had, an impact greater than that number would suggest.
“He has a fascinating history,” said James Hornaday, of Homer, who worked in a law practice with Fisher for 10 years in Kenai. Some of that history Fisher acknowledges, but most of it not unless someone specifically asks. Even being a founder of the fledgling state of Alaska, he’s still more interested in other people’s lives than rehashing what he’s done with his.
“He is just a man of great honor, and humble and gracious. He’s one of those people who doesn’t talk about himself, he asks you questions. He wants to know what’s going on in your world and he draws people in. He makes people feel important,” Tinker said.
It’s a quality he learned early, an attitude consumed around the dinner table as a kid — what you can do for others is more important than yourself. His mother, Mary, was a big supporter of community causes, of being politically involved and helping those around you. It’s a message she dished up to her children, Jim and Bob, from a young age.
“She used to tell my brother and I, ‘You should give back to society. You want to contribute to society,’” he said.
And he did. He joined the Marines just before he turned 18 in 1945, and was sent to China against the backdrop of World War II.
“Supposedly they were there sent for the Japanese surrender, but really it was to keep an eye on the communists,” Hornaday said.
In his mere 20s Fisher ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the Texas Legislature, another outgrowth of his mother’s insistence on public involvement. After earning a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1952, he rejoined the service, this time sent to Korea, from 1953 to “one month of 1955,” he said. Immediately after his discharge, Fisher decided he was not going to resettle in Texas. His mind was set on another frequent topic of childhood dinner-table discussion — the North.
Fisher had a great-grandfather who’d gone off adventuring in the Klondike, and came to a dramatic end — dying in a cabin fire,
“So it’s one of those legends,” Fisher said. But the region became more legendary than even the family story.
“We talked about Alaska for — oh, I don’t know, starting in my family in 1935. So I thought about it and thought about it. I didn’t have any commitments after getting out of the military in 1955, so I decided I was going to come here, and I did,” he said.
He settled in Anchorage and got involved in the statehood movement in 1958, and was elected to the first Alaska Legislature in 1959. Politics for Fisher wasn’t about power, prestige or any of the other negative connotations the word can carry. It was a way to contribute to society.
“It was about associations,” he said. “That’s the way we live — our friends, our neighbors. My family was Roosevelt Democrats, we used to talk about it around the dinner table in the 1930s,” Fisher said.
Fisher was defeated for a second term in 1960. He got married in 1960, and moved with his wife, Helen, to Kenai, in 1961, where they would raise their daughter, Sally (Tachick) and son, Bruce. He opened one of Kenai’s first law offices, recruiting Hornaday to partner with him.
At that time the vast majority of those in state government and politics were Democrats. But not Hornaday, who stuck out like a sore red thumb as “the only Republican in the courthouse in Anchorage,” he said.
“Everything else was Democrat. That’s hard to believe now but I mean everything in the state was Democrat, so that made that life interesting. (Jim) came and dug me out of the courthouse in 1966, offering me a partnership in a law firm down in Kenai,” he said.
They butted heads politically, but that didn’t stop them from working together successfully for 10 years, and maintaining a friendship from then on.
“It was fun because the politics were always interesting,” Hornaday said. “He never met a tax he didn’t like. He was the last of the New Deal Democrats. He carried around what he called his ‘boodle bag’ — that was a New Deal phrase for Democrats, meaning money from the government.”
But it was impossible to ignore Fisher’s genuine interest in service, no matter what your vantage on the political spectrum. Hornaday also remembers Fisher carrying a trash bag as he walked back and forth to work, with which to pick up garbage along the way.
In 1967 Fisher founded the Kenai Peninsula Bar Association. Its first order of business was to get a Superior Court justice for the Kenai. At that time a judge came down from Anchorage to hear cases periodically, otherwise lawyers had to bring their clients to Anchorage.
“So he started the battle. And he’s convinced that all Republicans are mossbacks, so he sent me down to Juneau to try to get my mossback friends online, and he worked with the Democrats, and eventually we succeeded,” Hornaday said.
They requested every applicant for the Superior Court appointee to sign a commitment that they would move to Kenai.
“The ones that didn’t, we opposed. Kenai, Sitka and Kodiak judges were all (approved) in the same bill, but we were the only one who had a judge that actually moved,” Hornaday said. The others had justices who lived in larger cities and traveled periodically to their assigned judicial community.
Eventually, they moved on to other pursuits. Hornaday had opened a branch office serving Homer and Seldovia, and in 1976 was appointed as an Alaska District Court justice in Homer, eventually going on to found the Homer Tribune newspaper and serving eight years as Homer’s mayor.
Fisher was appointed to a federal position in 1978, which sent him to Anchorage.
“I used to kid him that it took Jimmy Carter a week to appoint him as the United States representative of the Department of Agriculture in Alaska, and it took Ronald Reagan two days to fire him,” Hornaday said.
After that Fisher worked in state government in Juneau, was appointed as a district attorney, and spent much of his career on the peninsula, where he and Helen both were active in the community.
His efforts on behalf of the bar association even inspired a song, penned by Hornaday long ago, sung to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
“Fought single-handed for the Kenai Bar,
traveled through Alaska both near and far.
He submitted resolutions and he knew he was right,
he was in the middle of every bar fight.
Jamie, Jamie Fisher, king of the Kenai Bar.”
Among Fisher’s many community contributions were serving as president of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, working with the nonprofit Alaska Legal Services, helping found the Kenai Conservation Society, being a member of local historical societies and helping out at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center. One of his longest commitments has been on the board of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, where he’s served for 17 years.
“I got into it and I guess they can’t get rid of me,” Fisher jokes.
Alaska’s political majority long ago turned Republican, but Fisher hasn’t softened on his political views.
“I would certainly hope that young people would be interested in looking out for the less fortunate. That’s guided me throughout my life and that’s the reason I’ve been a Democrat — even a damn Democrat. The programs that we have provide ongoing prosperity. But oh no, ‘We’ve got to be conservative, we’ve got to cut spending.’ And we cut spending and cut spending — it’s stupidity,” he said.
Fisher is still involved in politics, most recently gathering signatures to get a recall of Senate Bill 21, which retooled the state’s oil taxes structure, on this fall’s ballot. Even though the petition was successfully certified earlier this summer, he still wears a ball cap with anti SB21 slogans written across it in puffy paint.
His sentiments on the matter are even stronger than the slogans on his hat.
“To give money to some of the most prosperous corporations in the United States, that’s insane. And it certainly isn’t looking out for those of us who are Alaskans. Or our schools or our children,” he said.
He’s not one to mince words, or not say or do what’s on his mind, whether it’s wagging a verbal finger in the political arena or taking a finger swipe of frosting off his birthday cake (which his daughter then sliced off as his piece).
A heart like his, expressed through a life like his, is what truly makes people sing Fisher’s praises.
“The honor that people and his children have for him, and the honor that he had for his wife, is just really profound,” Tinker said.
And it’s what made musicians sing Fisher’s most-praised songs. A birthday concert cribbed from the contents of Fisher’s little black book, played by heart, from the heart.
“To me, if Jim Fisher’s in the house he represents a hundred fans. An empty house with Jim Fisher is a full house,” Morgan said. “When he shows up, it’s like, ‘All right, everybody’s here. If Jim is here, then we’ve got everybody.’”
Soup Supper dishes up support
The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank’s 17th annual Soup Supper and Auction will be held at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Kenai Central High School. Tickets are $40, and includes your own keepsake bowl made by the Kenai Potters’ Guild. Raffle tickets to win $2,000 are $20 each. Tickets are available at Charlotte’s in Kenai or River City Books in Soldotna. For more information, visit www.kpfoodbank.org.