First woman elected to Homer public office dies

Margaret S. Anderson was so unassuming about her many accomplishments that many of today’s Homer residents are unlikely to realize the key role she played in shaping the community where they live.

Her contributions, however, are so influential that friend Larry Smith has called her “the grandmother of civic society in Homer.”

She was the driving force behind getting Homer’s first hospital and the original museum built. She was the first woman elected to public office in Homer — winning a seat on the Kenai Peninsula Public Utility District No. 1, the predecessor of the city of Homer, in spring of 1955. She later was elected to the Homer City Council in 1979.

It was at her recommendation that the city’s parks and recreation board was created. While the Homer area was still part of the public utility district, she served on the earliest planning commission and economic development board. In the late 1960s she served on the Homer health board. In 1970, she was named Homer’s Citizen of the Year. More recently, she was honored by Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre for her many accomplishments as a Pioneer Alaskan.

Anderson, 94, died early Friday morning, Aug. 4, 2017, at the home she and her late husband, Fred, built and had lived in since 1950. That “temporary home” was built on the homestead the Anderson family had established in 1924 above what is now Pioneer Avenue. The “permanent home” never was built.

As a new bride Anderson had insisted that the home have running water and a flush toilet.

Whether she knew that her responsibilities on the homestead would include cooking not only for her husband, but also his older brother and father is unknown.

Daughter Maren Bennett only knows that it wasn’t until her grandfather, Gustav Anderson, and uncle Virgo Anderson died that her mother and father ate dinner alone as a couple.

Margaret Anderson was born Jan. 15, 1923, in Dobra, a coal mining town in West Virginia, to Joe and Barbara Szili, Hungarian immigrants. She was the youngest of five children. When she was 3, her family moved to Cleveland.

She graduated with honors with a degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University.

Her mother was something of an enigma, said Bennett.

In 1947, on a whim, during a particularly hot summer in Cleveland, her mother accepted a teaching position at the newly established high school on the Kodiak Naval Base. She met Fred Anderson on the flight from Anchorage to Kodiak, his fishing homeport. Margaret taught in Sitka the following year, and she and Fred were married in Anchorage on Sept. 17, 1949.

Bennett didn’t see that adventurous streak in her mother growing up on the homestead. Her mother didn’t do things that were not well planned and organized.

“She was very, very thoughtful. I just find it amazing she came up here on a whim. It’s a mystery,” she said.

Anderson was one of a staff of six teachers covering grades 1-12, about 100 students, at the Homer Territorial School in 1950-51.

For a piece marking Homer’s 25th anniversary, Anderson wrote that she retired from teaching to start a family and to become a volunteer.

Son Rick was born in 1951; daughter Maren was born in 1959.

The galley table in the Anderson kitchen was command central for all kinds of things, remembered Rick Thompson, a friend of the Anderson children. People would come over and out would come coffee and cookies, and plenty of stimulating conversation would ensue.

“She was one of the first educated people to live in Homer,” said Thompson.

She kept up with all the news events of the day — national, state and local — and was an avid newspaper reader. When Bennett checked in on her mother Thursday night before her death, she was reading the local newspapers, as was her habit.

She was interested in the development of policy, enjoyed informed conversations and had a remarkable memory, said Smith.

“She was a reliable source of information and had a nearly perfect memory for documents and where they were stored,” said Smith.

Friend Lyni Borland agreed.

“For all my Homer and Seldovia questions, I came to Margaret. She knew the answers. Her memory was unbelievable,” she said.

To younger generations, Anderson was a mentor.

“What loyalty is and what family is are what Margaret gave to me,” said Thompson.

“I learned so much about government and about life from Margaret,” said Brian Bennett, her former son-in-law.

When she served in government, “Margaret focused on the strongest argument, not the loudest voice,” and she always was prepared for a meeting, reading everything in her council packet, he said.

When it looked like the city Parks and Recreation Commission might be disbanded, Anderson urged her son-in-law to step up and do something.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Brian Bennett.

One of the important political lessons she modeled was how to lose, said Smith.

“She thought that being straightforward was the key to getting things done. Even if you were on the losing side, you didn’t go sulk, you put your shoulder to the wheel and got the work done,” said Smith.

Her friendship with Homer Thompson, another community activist, was a good example. Although she and Thompson disagreed about many things, they remained good friends.

“She was ego-free,” said Smith. “She was not out there advertising the greatness of Margaret. She just wanted to be helpful. And everybody wanted to work with Margaret because she got things done.”

Margaret Anderson presided over the homestead much like the CEO of a big company —- tough and businesslike. At the same time, friends remembered her graciousness and kindness, which included taking people in who needed family support.

“People trusted her. … There was lots of forgiveness in her,” said Rick Thompson.

Bennett remembers an idyllic childhood, in which her mother didn’t hold back in preparing for the holidays —-all of them. Big dinners were the order of the day and friends were always welcome.

“She was a forever woman,” said friend Fran Moore.

“She just seemed so unshakeable and unwavering and very, very strong. … You just felt like she was always going to be there. … She always made you feel like she was glad to see you. … Before it was popular to be in the moment, she was in the moment.”

Of all her accomplishments, however, those who knew her best say it was her family that meant the most to her and it showed up most profoundly in the devotion she showed to her grandson, Michael Bennett, who developed a rare neurological disorder shortly after he was born on Dec. 5, 1993.

For years, until Michael’s death in Jan. 9, 2013, Margaret Anderson would read to her grandson for two hours every night, seven days a week.

Everyone knew not to come visit Margaret when she was reading to Michael. She might need to stop to wipe away tears as she read, but she always stoically continued, said Brian Bennett.

While she was known for her brilliant mind, she also was a diehard professional basketball fan. Her favorite team was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who won the NBA championship in 2016 with Anderson cheering them on from her living room.

She also was an avid bird watcher and was involved in Homer’s Christmas Bird Count every year.

She was a “tremendous leader,” said Brian Bennett. “She could have been anything, anywhere.”

But her favorite place on earth was the homestead, said her daughter. While age hampered her mobility in recent years, she enjoyed and marveled at the things happening outside her living room window — visits from sandhill cranes, the birth of twin moose calves on her front lawn, the rare appearance of bears, activity in Kachemak Bay, the moon moving across the night sky.

“She never lost that curiosity. She never lost that wonder of living. She never quit caring,” said Moore.

Lori Evans is the former editor and publisher of the Homer News and a longtime Alaska journalist.