Another in a series of short historical reminiscences to mark the 30th anniversary of the Homer Foundation, Alaska’s first community foundation. The series has been produced by the foundation and written by board member Tom Kizzia.
Ken Castner, a local commercial fisherman and business consultant, was thinking about writing the Pratt Museum into his will. The year was 1990. The Homer Society of Natural History, the nonprofit that managed the museum, was an institution firmly rooted in the town’s hard-hammering pioneer beginnings — born in the living room of the gabled, custom-built 1941 house of Sam and Vega Pratt, who donated land for the museum building. Vega Anderson Pratt was the daughter of a family that had been in Homer since the 1920s.
But Castner’s offer came with a catch. He wanted his money to go into an endowment, so that his gift’s earnings would support the museum in perpetuity. The museum said fine, we’ll call it an endowment. Castner said that wasn’t good enough.
Since moving to Homer from New England in his early 20s, Castner had shown a ready willingness to test the durability of Homer’s established institutions by holding them upside down and shaking. Today, he is Homer’s mayor. A proper endowment, he insisted, must be legally set beyond the reach of the museum’s board — otherwise, in a pinch, a legacy gift might go to pay the next month’s electric bill. The museum board said that was too problematic, and the converstion ended.
Castner complained to his friend, Homer lawyer Steve Yoshida. But it would be a problem, they conceded, trying to set up proper endowments for every nonprofit in town. For some reason — because of its isolation? the peculiar nature of the pioneers drawn to Kachemak Bay? an aversion to government? — Homer had always had an extraordinary number of volunteer associations. The Pioneer Igloo’s local history, “In Those Days,” listed 30 such organizations for early Homer, everything from the Homer Winter Carnival and the Hot Rod Ice Racing Association to the Homer Little Theater.
Yoshida had been reading about a new idea starting to catch on in the Lower 48: a community foundation established to raise money locally, manage multiple endowments and distribute money in all directions for the general good. Some of the first such organizations had been set up, they learned, when millionaires left trust bequests to their communities, and bankers didn’t want to keep making decisions about which causes to fund. Homer didn’t have such millionaires — not yet, anyway — but the idea of an organization serving as a focus for local philanthropy seemed like it could work in Alaska, too.
Yoshida drew up the documents for a community foundation, and in July, 1991, he recruited three leading women of Homer’s pioneer generation to join him signing the incorporation papers.