The first 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.
Hazel Heath was a local businesswoman, one of the wartime settlers who arrived in Homer after the local benchland had been settled as farms. The close-in homesteads had all been staked, so Hazel and her husband, Ken, purchased their homestead, at the downtown corner of Pioneer Avenue and what is today Heath Street.
In 1946, Homer had fewer than 500 residents: two grocery stores, a cafe, and a lumber yard. The Heaths established the Bear Foot trailer park, with a wink to the local Barefooter commune, and built Alaska Wildberry Products, shipping gift boxes in those pre-highway days direct to Seattle on the Alaska Steamship lines.
After Ken Heath died in 1964, two weeks before the earthquake—“He’d always predicted a big one,” his wife wrote. “Too bad he missed it.” — Hazel involved herself in local politics. Active in the state Republican Party, she served as Homer’s mayor for eight critical years in the 1970s, as older enthusiasms for oil and timber development began giving way to the values of a scenic tourist town.
On July 16, 1991, in her 80s and still committed to working for the good of her community, Hazel Heath signed incorporating documents for a new foundation to benefit the area’s many nonprofits. The pro-development businesswoman was joined on the dotted line that day by one of the town’s most outspoken defenders of the environment.
Daisy Lee Bitter had been connected to Homer since the mid-1950s, when she and her husband, Conrad (like Ken Heath, an Alaska war veteran) bought part of the Woodman homestead on Skyline Drive. After a career as an educator in Anchorage, leading school trips to study Kachemak Bay’s geology, botany, and marine environment, Daisy Lee retired to Homer in the 1980s. The Bitters were active among their longtime Alaskan peers — Conrad served as president of Homer’s Pioneer Igloo — but Daisy Lee also helped found the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and produced regular public radio broadcasts on local ecology.
The unusual pairing of developer and environmentalist was cemented by the third redoubtable pioneer woman who signed the new organization’s incorporation papers thirty years ago this month.
Mary Epperson was the shining star of the arts for that make-do post-war generation. She was a true homesteader, staking land on the North Fork with her husband, Jack, in 1954. She believed in hard work and discipline—as any good piano teacher must. She served as the city’s treasurer for 18 years. She also founded the Homer Council on the Arts. Mary Epperson saw no reason why making-do in the Alaska territory had to mean sacrificing theater, music and dance.
After a lifetime of staging bake sales so she could stage concerts, Mary Epperson joined Hazel Heath and Daisy Lee Bitter in 1991 to launch something that had never been tried in Alaska: a community foundation to channel local philanthropy to area nonprofits of all stripes.