UA Journey

UAF Rehearsal Hall Bears Name of Fairbanks Hostess

Eva McGown Photo: UAF Archives, University Relations Collection 91-187-363

Eva McGown was born in Antrim in Belfast County, Northern Ireland on June 23, 1883. She came to Alaska in 1914 and died at the age of 89 on Feb. 22, 1972 in the Nordale Hotel fire one year after the following article appered in the "Nanook News," on May 14, 1971.

A white-haired Irish woman of 87 years was honored at the University of Alaska's Founders' week.

Eva McGown, Fairbanks' official hostess, was the guest of honor on the College campus at the dedication of a music rehearsal hall in her honor. In ceremonies at intermission of the University's opera production, "Dido and Aeneas," the Eva McGown Music Room officially received its name.

Mrs. McGown responded merrily to the dedicatory address of University President William R. Wood, recalling the many children she had instructed when she was a choir director in Belfast early in this century.

The audience laughed delightedly when Eva firmly informed them that "I was no shy Irish colleen, not me." Presented with roses and an engraved plaque during the formal ceremonies, Mrs. McGown greeted her many friends at an informal reception after the opera.

Eva McGown was the angel of Fairbanks during World War II, when she helped military wives find housing in the jam-packed city. Photo by Epicenter Press

The Eva McGown Music Room, located in the Fine Arts Complex, is specifically designed for choral practice and is equipped with risers for group rehearsal. Although announcement of the plans to name the music room after Mrs. McGown was made last year at commencement, formal dedication ceremonies were deferred until completion of the hall.

Mrs. McGown's many years in Alaskas' University city have spanned the campus presidencies of Drs. Charles Bunnell, Terris Moore, Ernest Patty and presently William R. Wood. The Board of Regents, in last year's announcement of the planned music room dedication, took note of Mrs. McGown's assistance to the University during her long residency in Fairbanks.

Dedication of the music room to Eva, as she was known to her innumerable friends, was chosen as an appropriate honor, for the petite Irish-born pioneer is herself a musician, having conducted a choir in Belfast and served as church organist for many years at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church here in Fairbanks.

The story of Eva's dedication to the lonely newcomers who flocked north during Alaska's boom periods is a familiar one to most Fairbanks residents. After the death of her first husband, Mrs. McGown found herself in the predicament of many an Arctic widow - lonely, without a goal in life, determined to stay in the frontier state.

Pictured are Dr. Wood, Eva McGown and former President Patty at the dedication to the Eva McGown Room. Photo: UAF Archives, University Relations Collection

As she is fond of explaining, she started out by visiting other bereaved women like herself. "Then people started sending other people to me," she says. "Pretty soon, it was 'Go see Eva, she'll help' and 'Have you been to see Eva McGown?"

Eva found her vocation.

In the years that followed, she became a familiar stranger to the cheechakoes whom she helped from her tiny, cluttered office in the downtown Nordale Hotel. "I never had children of my own," Eva says, still a bit sadly. "But as someone once said, I'm the mother of all the cheechakoes."

Hired by the city of Fairbanks to befriend the lonely, Eva soon earned for herself a wide reputation. She appeared on Ralph Edward's television program, "This is Your Life." A lengthy article about her appeared in Reader's Digest. Newspapers frequently carried feature stories spreading the fame of this charming woman who always found time to chat and who would always find help for the needy.

Eva McGown is depicted as the organ player in St. Matthew's Church's early 1900 choir, shown in a stained glass window designed by Helen Atkinson and made by Debbie Matthews.

She knew everyone. When she speaks of the University of Alaska, she refers as casually to Presidents Bunnell and Patty as to the present holder of that title. She befriended students, legislators, entertainers, housewives, military men - in short, everyone with whom she came into contact.

Reminiscing recently in her former office in the Nordale lobby, she was interrupted by a middle-aged man who inquired, "Aren't you Eva McGown?"

Thirty years ago, he had been a visiting minister in the gold-rush town of Fairbanks. Eva McGown, from the Nordale office, had miraculously found him a room in the overcrowded city. "It was at the Salvation Army," he smiled. "And I've always said, if I ever return to Fairbanks, I'll look up that lovely lady with God in her smile."

So it has been for many years. In her round-the-world trips, Eva fondly recalls, she rediscovered people whom she had helped in Alaska on the streets and in the airports in distant places such as Scandinavia and the Orient. "They always said the same thing," she laughs, "Aren't you Eva McGown?"

Building number 23 at Pioneer Park was originally a bunkhouse for Orr's Stageline. Afterward, it was sometimes used for Fairbanks' Hospitality Center.