Eva Lucia Saulitis
May 10, 1963-Jan. 16, 2016
Renowned Alaska writer and marine biologist, Eva Lucia Saulitis, 52, died Jan. 16, 2016. “She was carried into her beloved eternal wilderness on the spirited wings of dear friend and mentor Celia Hunter’s dogsled, in the early afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, from her home in Homer, Alaska,” her family said.
Eva’s writing touched countless lives with her powerfully honest and generous sharing of her journey with breast cancer, through her Caring Bridge site and in her published works, including her nonfiction memoir “Into Great Silence” (Beacon Press, 2013), two poetry collections, “Many Ways to Say It” (Red Hen Press, 2012) and “Prayer in Wind” (Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2015) and her recently completed collection of essays, “Becoming Earth” (Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, release date 2017). Her first book, a collection of essays entitled “Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist,” was published in 2008 by Boreal Books. Her essays, poems and reviews have appeared in many journals and anthologies including Orion, The Sun, The Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Quarterly West, Crazyhorse and The Utne Reader.
She was recently profiled in the Anchorage Daily News We Alaskans section, and just days before her death, received news of her receipt of the Homer Council on the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, she was recognized with an Alaska Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities. She was also the recipient of writing awards and fellowships from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Island Institute.
Writing and teaching were lifelong passions that began with her first diary at age 6 and ending with her final journal entry just two days before her death. She received a master of science in marine biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993 and completed her second master’s degree, a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999.
She was an associate professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage Low Residency MFA program, and continued to mentor her graduate students even during the final weeks of her life, telling us that teaching nourished and healed her. She remembered with fondness her years spent teaching at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College in Homer, where she shared her craft with local students, friends and neighbors.
Eva never turned down the opportunity to read and provide her insights into the works of other writers, from whom she felt she learned just as much as she taught. And her stepchildren, nieces and nephews benefited greatly from her honest and loving critiques of college essays, medical school applications and high school assignments. She had the powerful ability to connect each student with their own innate writer’s voice. The annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, of which she was a founder, lives on as a part of her prolific legacy.
While her home address was in Homer, she always felt that her true home was found in Prince William Sound where for the past 27 years, together with her life partner Craig Matkin, she studied killer whales. Eva brought her keen gift of observation, her profound love and respect for all living creatures, her adventurous spirit and her spiritual connection to the earth with her wherever she traveled, worked or lived. When not spending long hours looking through binoculars in the quest to “find the whales” in the waters of Prince William Sound, she could be found hiking the islands of the Sound, picking buckets of wild blueberries and salmonberries while calling out to hidden bears, hunkering down in Squire Cove to ride out weather in the cabin of their boat which she had turned into a cozy home complete with homemade curtains, preparing “Hot Dish” — a mixture of egg noodles, fresh caught fish, cream of mushroom soup and lots of cheese, a meal somehow only delicious when prepared in the field — cooking fresh caught fish over an open fire, or sharing stories, music, tears and laughter with friends. Her final resting place will be in her true home.
But Eva was so much more than a scientist, whale researcher, poet, essayist and writer. To her family and friends, she was our heart and soul. Raised by first generation Latvian immigrant parents in rural Western New York state, Eva carried a deep awareness of the powerful influence of one’s cultural and family history on personal identity. Overcoming childhood adversity borne of her family’s history in World War II Eastern Europe, Eva strove to foster the positive aspects of her upbringing in her own life including her love of raising and preserving her own food from her prolific garden, learning and passing on the traditional crafts of making Latvian Easter eggs and baking Latvian bread, and loyalty to one’s family whether biological or adopted.
We all benefited from Eva’s ability to make just about any situation fun, or at least funny, through her sharp wit, her penchant for giving personal names to inanimate objects and finding peculiar but always perfectly fitting nicknames for just about everybody, her various nutty personas and by being the best ever Auntie Eva and stepmom through all kinds of crazy adventures and creations. Everything was more fun with her around.
For the past 15 years, she and Craig have split their time between homes they built in Homer and Kapa’au, Hawaii. In each of these places and everywhere she lived throughout her life, Eva created community and family. Though a quiet person at heart, she magically drew people into her circle through her kindness, empathy, sense of humor and willingness always to lend a hand or an ear to someone in need. She served both as a volunteer and as a board member of the Bunnell Street Arts Center, participated each year in the creation of Homer’s Burning Basket, helped with the annual hay baling on the Kilcher homestead and spent hours beside her friend Peter Risley, harvesting and selling his garden bounty at the weekly farmers’ market in Haw, Hawaii.
Despite an early career path change from professional oboe studies at Northwestern University to earning her environmental science degree from Syracuse University, she continued to enjoy sharing her musical talent through teaching private oboe lessons, playing in small chamber groups and especially by playing Irish tunes alongside her dear friend, David Grimes. And as a prolific writer and master wordsmith, all of us (except, of course, Mike Gratz and Peter Gurche) were subjected to multiple humiliating losses in Scrabble and Bananagrams.
Eva is survived by her true love and life partner, Craig Matkin, and the lights of her life, her stepchildren, Eve (Eivin) Kilcher and Elli (Peter) and Lars Matkin(Alisa) and grandchildren, Findlay and Sparrow Kilcher. She will be missed forever by her sister and best friend Mara Liebling (Jon) of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and brothers Andy Saulitis (Kathy) of Darien, Conn., and John Saulitis (Susie) of Mineral Ridge, Ohio, and her dear nieces and nephews: Phoebe, Sam and Quinn Liebling, John, Peter and Kathryn Saulitis, Emily and Anna Saulitis, and Shanti and Jason Matkin.
Together in grief are many relatives throughout the United States, Canada and Latvia, especially brothers in law, Roger Matkin and his wife MiSook, Kirk Matkin and his wife, Sandra of Southern California, and her “other brother,” Jon Liebling of Bainbridge Island, Wash., as well as countless friends, neighbors, colleagues and followers of her writing. Her loyal companion and guardian, GrisGris, remains behind.
She was predeceased in the last year by her mother, Asja Ivins Saulitis, and previously by her father, Janis Saulitis, beloved Tante Vala and cousin John Niedra.
As her spirit soared, she was greeted in the eternal wilderness by her Hawaiian dogs Kea and Boo as well as by 16 Chugach transient killer whales from the AT1pod of Prince William Sound.
In words that could only flow from Eva’s heart to her pen, she left us with this message: “There is nothing more I needed in this life, except more of what was already given to me. It was a good day to die, because it was such a good life to have lived.”
A celebration of Eva’s honorable life will be held in Homer when spring comes. In lieu of flowers and to honor Eva and her legacy of writing and teaching, donations are welcomed to the Eva Saulitis Endowment Scholarship Fund through the University of Alaska Anchorage University Advancement www.uaa.alaska.edu/advancement.