A cross section of Haines, Klukwan and Skagway residents filled the ANB Hall for Art Jess’s memorial service Saturday, led by his son Tim and daughter Margo Clayton, who eulogized her father as a man devoted to spiritual and social advancement for all people, and Native Americans in particular. “He believed the world is a beautiful place, all is well, and everything would work out,” she said.
The 83 year-old community leader died at his home on March 22 after catching a bad cold, according to his wife Leanne Converse. His health had declined over the winter.
Friend Georgia Haisler summed up the Baha’i faith tenet she said he lived by, “One world. One people. Please.”
Jess resided in Haines on and off since 1973 and worked as a heavy equipment operator on local and statewide construction projects from some of the original city of Haines sewer and water lines to the trans-Alaska Pipeline, Klondike Highway and relocation of the village of Point Lay.
The list of organizations he volunteered for is long and diverse. At the time of his death he was still active in many, including the Friends of the Library, the Baha’is, ANB, Haines People for Peace, the Sheldon Museum, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Haines Borough Public Safety Commission, the Men of Note, We the People, and the North Tide Dancers and Drummers. He was a volunteer substance abuse counselor, led talking circles and was a pool early-bird swimmer. “He was always on the go, I couldn’t keep track of him,” Margo Clayton said.
Jess donated generously to local non-profits and fundraisers, too. “At Arts Council events he’d always pay with a big bill and say ‘keep the change,’” council treasurer Chip Lende said.
Jess was a deep listener, who gave people and situations his full attention. “He always heard what you said, and made you feel as if it had real value,” Beth MacCready said.
Listening closely was a practice Jess learned as a result of severe dyslexia. “Art could read but he couldn’t write at all. You couldn’t decipher his words, ” his wife said. He convinced teachers to allow his reports to be oral. Converse said he mastered material he studied or classes he took easily but couldn’t complete the written requirements for certifications or degrees. “He was self taught, and saw life as school. When it was done, he said you 'graduated'. And so he has.” Her husband was a wise and gentle man, she said. “The only time he’d lose his temper was over politics. He was a life long member of the NRA, but their position on gun control made him so angry he quit.”
Jess was a compelling and articulate speaker, with a good sense of humor. Daughter Margo Clayton said he’d often embellish “true” stories with what his family dubbed, “Art-i-facts.”
Arthur Jess was born in Gold Beach, Oregon January 7, 1931 to homemaker Margaret Meservey, and park ranger and engineer Vern Jess. In 1939 the family moved to Volcanoes National Park near Hilo, Hawaii, where he had memories enemy planes overhead the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. As a result of the war, the family moved back to Oregon where they lived in several towns along the Columbia River.
A Boy Scout camping trip to Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, the ancestral home of the Nez Perce Indians kindled an interest in his culture that would direct and inform the rest of life, his family said. Jess was a member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.
His love of boats began early too, when he worked on a Columbia River tugboat. He played football at Pendleton High School, graduating in 1949. Soon afterward he moved to Alaska where his father was working with the Army Corps of Engineers. “He fell in love with Alaska,” Margo Clayton said, and joined the Army in Fairbanks and later served in the National Guard. He was a marksman and on a biathlon team, drove riverboats, operated heavy equipment and ran a dog team there.
A marriage to Margaret Norum produced a daughter and the family moved to Kenai and then to Arizona where Jess tested equipment for Caterpillar. A devout Baha’i by then, Jess’s visits to the faithful on the Navajo Reservation led to the adoption of his son Tim. The family returned to Kenai and then Palmer with Jess’s work, before he settled in Haines though worked primarily out-of-town. He was working in North Pole when he met Leanne Converse there in 1990. They were married in Haines May 12, 2001.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said that when she was a newly single parent, Jess offered to help her. “Repeatedly I claimed independence; but one day he showed up when I was wrestling with my roto-tiller. Art took over. He roto-tilled my entire and very large garden stopping occasionally, to rest, I thought initially. And then I glanced. Art was lifting handfuls of newly tilled soil and letting the loam flow through his fingers, blessing the land and its potential to provide sustenance for my family. It was the best garden year I have ever had.”
About two years ago Jess was reunited with Michael Meldon, a son from a youthful romance. “It only took 62 years and the Internet age but Dad had always hoped that the day would come,” Margo Clayton said.
Jess was preceded in death by his brother David, and leaves his wife Leanne Converse and daughter Margo Clayton of Haines; sons Tim Jess of Marysville Wa. and Michael Meldon of San Louis Obispo Ca.; sister Joyce Gardner and half-sister Kathy Kniep of Quincy Wa.,and half-brother Coulee Sheets of Peshastin, Wa., and grandson, Donovan Clayton of Desert Hot Springs, Ca.
The family held a sea burial on Sunday. Son-in-law Lee Clayton and friend Wayne Price rolled the locally made steel casket off the deck of Tod Sebens’ tour boat as porpoises leapt in the waves. “He was a very great man,” Wayne Price said, “and now he will be running with us in our dreams.”
Memorial donations may be made to the Chilkat Valley Community Foundation at P.O. Box 1117 Haines, AK 99827 or chilkatvalleycf.org.