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May 26, 2011
UD Alum and Native Alaskan Icon, Walter Soboleff, Dies

Flags around Alaska are at half mast this week. They honor Walter Soboleff, a University of Dubuque alum (College '37, Seminary '40), Alaskan native son and icon who passed away Sunday, May 22, at the age of 102. Before his passing, he was the University's oldest living alumnus.

Walter Soboleff

Soboleff was a noted Tlingit scholar and spiritual leader, a native elder, and translator - specializing in traditional oratory and story telling. He was Pastor Emeritus of the Northern Lights Presbyterian Church in Juneau. Throughout his career he served as President of Kootznoowoo - The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Corporation for the village of Angoon, a Tlingit community; director of Sealaska Corporation; Grand Campu President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), the United States' oldest indigenous persons civil rights organization; ANB Grand Camp Secretary; and on the Historic Sites Commission for the State of Alaska as well as other state and federal commissions that serve to make policy regarding Alaska Native peoples. Soboleff was the first Alaska Native to be nominated by former Governor Walter J.Hickel to the State Board of Education, where he served as chairman.

Soboleff grew up in Tenakee just 10 steps from the U.S. Government School. He loved every class there and once stated, "I loved the red school, its smell in the rain, the sound of the bell and writing on my slate in English and Tlingit... and I remember the biggest lesson I ever learned in the chapel there, Take care of the old person you are going to become.'"

In 1925, while a freshman at Sheldon Jackson High School, Soboleff took his first real job, working 10 hours a day at a Hood Bay fish cannery for 25 cents an hour. He would continue working at a fish plant in Killisnoo in the summers. Soboleff loved his four high school years as exciting learning, but was enthralled by college. He received a scholarship in 1933 to the University of Dubuque, earning a bachelor's degree in education in 1937 and a graduate degree in divinity in 1940. "Now that was exciting," Soboleff said in a past interview. "You have to study to produce."

Soboleff was preceded in death by his wife Genevieve in January 1986. He remarried in 1999 to Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, who passed in April 2008.

Alaska State Senator Al Kookesh stated "When someone great dies, the Tlingit have a saying: A great tree has fallen in the forest,' and that's exactly what has happened."

Soboleff - a champion for the cause of native rights, cultural education, and a love of humanity - was an inspiration to generations of Alaska Native leaders, and to all those who had the privilege of knowing him. *

*Information source: Juneau Empire