Tall, lanky and almost always smiling, Frank Vondersaar could be seen volunteering for nonprofits from the Salvation Army to the Pratt Museum. When campaign season rolled around, the name of Vondersaar, a tireless Alaska Democratic Party member, frequently could be seen on the ballot. Most recently a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. Congress, Vondersaar ran against Forrest Dunbar, who won the nomination.
Vondersaar, 63, has run his last race. Last Friday, Sept. 12, he died at Alaska Regional Hospital after a short illness. A visitation is 6 to 8 p.m. today at the Homer Funeral Home on Diamond Ridge Road. Funeral services are at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 19, at St. John’s the Baptist Catholic Church in Homer.
He will be buried following the services at the Hickerson Cemetery on Diamond Ridge Road. A potluck will follow the services at the Salvation Army Church on the Sterling Highway.
Vondersaar was born in Kokomo, Ind., to John and Susanna Vondersaar, and was a 36-year Alaska resident. He served 13 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1985 as a major.
His degrees included a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in business administration and a juris doctorate in law. Since 1981, he was a registered professional engineer in Alaska, and was a member of the Alaska Bar Association since 1989.
Locally, Vondersaar was vice president of public radio station KBBI’s board of directors and was on the Friends of the Homer Public Library’s board.
His daughter and only child, Sarah Vondersaar of Bishop, Calif., said Vondersaar first came to Alaska at age 18. Later in adulthood he did survey work and would spend as much time here in the summers as he could.
“He just loved the weather and the mountains and everything about it, how wild it was,” she said of her father’s love of Alaska.
Sarah Vondersaar said she remembered her father as always bringing her presents from when he went away on trips.
“He was a really good dad,” she said. “He was always hands-on. He always had projects for me to do. He was always thoughtful and creative.”
Vondersaar remembered her father as being extremely intelligent. In the Air Force he worked in research and development.
“He was very kind,” she added. “He was adventurous. I think the thing I loved about him the most — he was brave.”
Vondersaar’s volunteer work spread far and wide. KBBI was one of the organizations he was most active at, answering phones at membership drives or helping at the Concert on the Lawn.
“He was just a great volunteer,” said general manager Dave Anderson. “You could always count on Frank if you had something that needed to be done … He was one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, always kind and generous.”
For almost a decade, Vondersaar worked at the Salvation Army Thrift Store as a truck driver, maintaining electronics and doing “a little bit of everything,” said Kelly Kokel, the store’s manager. “He was one of those guys that anything you needed him to do, he was doing it.”
Other thrift store employees and volunteers are feeling “great loss” over Vondersaar’s passing, said Kokel.
“He’s someone we’ll not ever replace. His personality, how he was. A lot of people were shocked. This was very sudden and unexpected,” she said.
After arriving in Homer in July, the Salvation Army’s Lt. Christin Frankhauser said it quickly became evident to her and her husband Lt. Caleb Frankhauser that Vondersaar “was a real asset to us, just trying to get a grasp of our schedule and the people who could help us with different things.”
His ready smile and willingness to help with whatever needed attention made him the Frankhausers’ “right-hand guy.”
“It’s such a tragedy. We’re all very much hurting,” she said.
Vondersaar was a long-time volunteer at the Pratt Museum and had worked with Michael Craig maintaining fish tanks prior to Craig’s retirement.
“It’s really interesting the kind of discussions you can have when you’re up to your elbows cleaning fish tanks,” said Craig.
Recalling one of Vondersaar’s many campaigns for elected office, Craig recalled listening to one debate between Vondersaar and his opponents.
“He did a really credible job and came across as probably the most realistic, idealistic candidate they could come up with,” said Craig.
He remembered Vondersaar as a hard and willing worker, “always a happy kind of person, a good person. He wanted to contribute and was always a volunteer for this and that, always there when somebody needed something.”
During the last several years, Vondersaar worked most closely with Art Koeninger, the Pratt’s building manager, as the “go-to guy on aquarium maintenance,” weekly cleaning the tanks, changing the water and filters.
“It was easy to have a discussion while we were working. We’d talk about all sorts of stuff. He had a very broad knowledge and firm opinions about all sorts of things,” said Koeninger. “He had a very good humor, was very easy going. I never heard a cross word and I never heard him say ‘no.’”
Koeninger said Vondersaar had been recognized as the Pratt’s “volunteer of the year.”
“We probably could have given it to him every year, but felt like we needed to spread the kudos around,” said Koeninger. “He’ll be greatly missed. He was a rock.”
At Cook Inletkeeper, Vondersaar worked for nine years as a water quality monitor with its Citizens’ Environmental Monitoring Program, putting in more than 130 volunteer hours collecting water samples and helping protect the water quality in Homer-area streams, said Rachel Lord, Clean Water Program director. Cook Inletkeeper named him its 2009 Volunteer of the Year in 2009.
“He never missed a Splash Bash party in the summer, or our winter solstice get-together. Frank spent a lot of time around the Inletkeeper office, and we’ll all miss him and his dedication to our community,” Lord said.
In politics, Vondersaar became known for his frequent campaigns as a Democrat for political office. His campaigns go back to 1992, when Vondersaar was one of five Democrats on the primary ballot with plans to unseat Sen. Frank Murkowski. Tony Smith of Anchorage was the top Democrat vote-getter in the primary, but Murkowski won in the general election.
“I just wanted to give people a choice to elect someone that wasn’t elected by the right wing so much,” Vondersaar told the Homer News.
Two years later, Vondersaar made another bid for the ballot, that time with his sights set on Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. In 22 years, Vondersaar continued to run for office. During that time, he consistently claimed he had been harassed by secret police, but acknowledged he lacked any proof.
Looking back at the issues that inspired him to run in 1992, Vondersaar said recently, “Health care, now we’ve got that, but the right wing is still taking shots at Obamacare and Obama. The more I can do to help him with getting a reasonable Congress, particularly the U.S. House, would be the best thing.”
He believed the “five-fascist majority U.S. Supreme Court needs to be redone,” supported the appointment of new federal justices and believed the election of Hillary Clinton as the next U.S. President “would be the next best thing.”
Before the August primary election, Vondersaar became ill of what he said were symptoms of a stroke.
“I’m not doing too well right now as far as campaign running,” he told the Homer News last month. “People can vote for me if they would like, but if they don’t, voting for Dunbar is just as good right now as far as I can tell.”
Dunbar praised Vondersaar as an opponent.
“I only met Frank a couple of times, but when I did, he was always very friendly and polite,” Dunbar said on Monday. “He was clearly somebody who believes passionately in democracy and the democratic process, and I was very saddened to hear of his passing.”
Zack Fields, communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party, said Vondersaar’s legacy was a lifetime of service.
“He engaged in important public policy debates and, by volunteering to be a candidate in several elections, played an important part in our democratic process,” Fields said. “Frank’s death is a great loss because he was so committed to Homer, to Alaska and to our democracy.”
In August, the Pratt held its volunteer recognition party and planned to present Vondersaar with the “Pratt Museum 2014 Staff Choice Award.” However, Vondersaar was unable to attend. The award read: “To Frank Vondersaar, marine and aquaria volunteer extraordinaire, with our sincere thanks for years of willing, creative and enthusiastic service.” It was signed by Milli Martin, president of the Pratt’s board of directors, and by Diane Converse, the museum director.
“This is a sad loss,” Converse told the Homer News of Vondersaar’s death. “He was an amazing guy.”
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