The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Tommy Wells
Seward Phoenix LOG 

Former Seward resident set to publish latest book on Seward


August 11, 2016 | View PDF

Seward and the eastern Kenai Peninsula will soon be the focus of another literary work of art, thanks to the hard work of a former resident. Jacquelin Ruth Benson Pels is tentatively set to unveil her latest book about the area in September.

"I'm looking forward to the book coming out," said Pels, noting she was putting the finishing touches on the work and about to send a book subtitled "Community Art in Seward, Mural Capital of Alaska" to the printer.

For Pels, her latest publication was the end result of a long series of events, the first of which happened in 1937 when she was born in Seward to Ruth and Jack Benson, who were living in what was then the Romig house - now known for generations as the Lind house - on Third Avenue. Her father was recruited for a post as a Fish and Game agent when she was young, leading the family to a series of moves throughout territorial Alaska.

When her parents' marriage ended, Pels said, her mother returned to Seward and soon met Ralph Soberg, who like her mother had grown up on Unga Island in the Shumagins. Soberg was in Seward as the general foreman for construction of the Sterling Highway. The two fell in love and settled into a stable life, albeit on the other side of the peninsula.

Pels graduated as one-quarter of the Kenai Territorial High School class of 1953. Later, she graduated from the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and took a job as a copyeditor at the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1990, her stepfather, then 82 years of age, began writing about his adventurous life in Alaska.

"I was drafted as publisher," she said. "A newspaper friend, David Johnson, designed and I edited a small book titled 'Survival on Montague Island.' It was a good experience, and we all went back to life-as-usual."

Her publishing career might have ended there ... except for the fact that her stepfather wasn't through with his stories.

"Dad wrote three more books before he died at 85," she said.

Her success at helping her stepfather get his stories told in book form caught the attention of a few other pioneers. The presses began rolling from there.

"After the first two, people began contacting me to ask about seeing their stories in print. That was 26 years and 30-some self-publishing projects ago," she said.

Pels' work is available for most area residents. Many of her publications are on the Seward Library shelves. Among those works are three books she penned herself, including "Unga Island Girl: Ruth's Book," about her mother's family; "Any Tonnage, Any Ocean: Conversations with a resolute Alaskan," a biography of Capt. Walter Jackinsky of Ninilchik, the longtime skipper of the Bartlett; and the Seward volume of "Family After All: Alaska's Jesse Lee Home," which won the Alaska Historical Society's "Contributions to Alaska History" award.

According to Pels, in about 1994, Patricia Ray Williams wrote a letter to her from Seward to say that she had enjoyed her stepfather's books, and that she had known her parents as "that handsome young couple around town" before Pels had been born. So began a friendship that culminated with Williams asking Pels to turn a lovely memoir she had written in association with Colleen Kelly of Seward into what she called "a real book." That memoir spawned the book, "There's a Freedom Here," which was published shortly before Williams' death in 2014 at the age of 105.

The third factor that led Pels to pen her latest book, almost unknowingly, happened then. "There's a Freedom Here" featured on the back cover a section of Seward's "Dawn of Aviation" mural, in which a teenage Williams appears as she had in 1926 when the first round-the-world flight made a stop in Seward.

Later, Pels said, she found herself looking back at "Pat's mural" (which, she noted, is really Jennifer Headtke and Tim Sczawinski's mural) and the others. There she found her inspiration.

"I didn't even know that Seward had been proclaimed 'Mural Capital,' but here we are, David and I, about to send a book to the printer."

The mother of six, Pels said she is hoping to be in Seward when the book is released.


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