• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
News Alert: DIRECTV Customers: Tell DIRECTV to bring back KTVA - Call 800-531-5000. - Read More
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
4m 12s

Meeting Dee Longenbaugh: A ‘Dee-lightful’ experience

By Rhonda McBride 10:23 PM December 30, 2013

Bookstore owner, history buff, map collector, raconteur

JUNEAU – Dee Longenbaugh of Juneau turned 80 years young this month. And this is one of those cases where the “years young” turn of phrase, instead of “years old,” is no euphemism and fits perfectly.

Longenbaugh owns The Observatory bookstore in downtown Juneau and still takes an active role in running her rare books and maps business. She manages to walk back and forth to her shop on Franklin Street at a brisk pace. Photojournalist Todd Hardesty and I had a hard time keeping up with her.

The thought has probably crossed many a Juneau-ite’s mind: She’s the elder we all want to grow up to be — someone who is forever young in mind and spirit.

When I first met Longenbaugh over pancakes at the Capital Cafe in the Baranof Hotel, I was smitten within the first few minutes of conversation. Talking with her is like opening a bunch of Chinese boxes. Inside one box, you find another box, and then another box. With Longenbaugh, every story leads to another story, and another.

In our KTVA television profile of Longenbaugh, there’s just not enough time to share the wealth of her knowledge. Remember, she not only collects books but reads them too.

But I’ll share the contents of one of the Chinese boxes I opened. This came from a weighty leather-bound federal report written in the 1900s about some explorers who got lost on the Yukon River.

“To make things really bad,” Longenbaugh said, “a bear got into their little scanty food supply and took a side of bacon, and that was just about the end of it.”

Or so it seemed to the explorers who wondered how much longer they could survive. Lucky for them, an Alaska Native hunter killed the bear. When he butchered it, he found the bacon inside, something that definitely wasn’t indigenous to the bear’s diet.

“And he said, ‘Ah-ha. There were white men around here,’ so he went off looking for them,” Longenbaugh said, laughing. The federal report explained how the hunter took them to his village, fed the explorers and nursed them back to health so they could live to tell the tale.

These are the kinds of gems Longenbaugh liberally scatters in conversation at her bookstore. The tourists grab them up, along with directions to various attractions and restaurants.

But Longenbaugh is beloved by the locals as well. While we were gathering footage at her store, we met Garrett Smithberg, a young man who works at another Juneau bookstore.

In this day and age, such a friendship is pretty rare, with young folks more likely to turn to an app than an octogenarian.

This May-December friendship is pretty special to Smithberg, who at 20 longs to travel the world and soaks in every bit of information he can from Longenbaugh about her travels in search of rare maps.

He said he’s learned a lot about history from Longenbaugh, but the most important lessons have been about life itself.

“I would say the biggest one is to be adventurous,” Smithberg said. “Dee is extremely adventurous in her pursuits and her travels and her ideas. In short, that’s taught me to be adventurous about life.”

What attracted me to Longenbaugh is that she is a recognized expert on early Russian American history and early Alaska maps — expertise gained mostly through a personal journey, marked by a relentless pursuit of knowledge.

She is a type who is not unusual to Alaska, where you often meet people who get interested in a subject, only to find there’s very little written about it. So they take off into undiscovered country to become self-taught experts.

Longenbaugh was a doctor’s wife in Sitka, a mother of two boys and two girls. It seems her passion for Russian American history stemmed partly from a desire to escape the world of the housewife — but also a natural curiosity about a community rich with historical landmarks. She opened a small bookstore there as well.

She will talk with you about any subject except one, the death of her husband in 1985. They were on a vacation in Mexico when a tree fell on their car and crushed him to death.

Her daughter Betsy believes her mother’s love of books and learning carried her through those tough times. Longenbaugh downplays any mention of hardship, however, and seems slightly annoyed to be a subject of an interview at all.

But like the tourists and locals who find themselves at The Observatory bookstore, inhaling the smells of old paper and history and marveling at old maps which don’t even show Alaska’s existence, I leave feeling that I’ve experienced something authentically Alaskan.

Oh, and what did I buy? A Capital Cookery cookbook, published in 1983 and featuring family favorites from Juneau’s best cooks.

OK.  I’ll share one recipe with you. I’ll post it on my  Facebook page: Barley mushroom casserole, from former first lady Bella Hammond.

 

Latest Stories

  • News

    Hostetler Park renovation project includes new plan for Alaska Victims Memorial

    by Eric Ruble on Feb 26, 18:45

    A small park in the northwest corner of downtown Anchorage will soon have a new look. Hostetler Park is located where Third Avenue becomes L Street. Since 1994, the eastern portion of the park has been occupied by the Alaska Victims Memorial. It includes the names of more than 350 Alaskans who died because of […]

  • Weather

    Alaska Weather Forecast – Feb. 26, 2017

    by KTVA Weather on Feb 26, 18:38

    Meteorologist Melissa Frey says most of the state will see some amount of snow, but Southeast will stay dry through Monday. Follow KTVA 11’s Weather Team on Facebook and Twitter. Got a weather-related photo or story idea? Email the team at weather@ktva.com.

  • News

    Officials readying for Eielson F-35s to spur housing crunch

    by Associated Press on Feb 26, 18:18

    Officials are preparing for a possible housing crunch in 2020 that is expected to coincide with an influx of servicemen tied to the two new F-35 squadrons coming to Eielson Air Force Base. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports one part of the Fairbanks North Star Borough is estimated to need 800 units of housing by […]

  • Politics

    White House to propose slashing agency budgets

    by Associated Press on Feb 26, 18:07

    The White House is moving to propose slashing cuts to longtime Republican targets like the Environmental Protection Agency in a set of marching orders to agencies as it prepares its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Capitol Hill aides say the White House budget office on Monday will send agencies proposed levels for the 2018 […]

  • Politics

    Agency publishes timetable for Mexico border wall

    by Associated Press on Feb 26, 18:04

    U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it plans to start awarding contracts by mid-April for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. The agency said Friday on a website for federal contactors that a request for bids would be published on or around March 6. Companies would have to submit “concept papers” to design and build […]

  • Lifestyle

    2017 Fur Rondy snow sculpture winners announced

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Feb 26, 17:49

    One of the most popular events at Fur Rendezvous is the snow sculpture competition. On Sunday, Fur Rondy officials announced the winners of this year’s event. While the competition is over, the public will be able to see each of the snow sculptures through the end of Fur Rondy on March 5, weather permitting. They are […]

  • Lifestyle

    Roxy Wright wins Fur Rondy sled dog races

    by KTVA Sports on Feb 26, 17:45

    Roxy Wright took home top prize at the 2017 Fur Rendezvous World Sled Dog Championship races over the weekend. The races take place over three days as competitors sprint a 25-mile loop through Anchorage, running a total of 75 miles. This year’s championship had the largest prize purse ever of $100,000. In perspective, last year’s […]

  • Lifestyle

    Denali National Park and Preserve celebrates 100 years

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Feb 26, 16:02

    The Denali Visitor Center is open during winter for the first time ever as the park celebrates its centennial, park officials say. The Denali National Park and Preserve was established on Feb. 26, 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park, park spokeswoman Katherine Belcher explained in a statement. The park’s name was later changed, followed by the […]