The Novatney Building at UAS bears the name of a territorial educator Dorothy Novatney, who started the community college in Juneau. This article first appeared in the Feb. 20, 1998 edition of Whalesong, the UAS student newspaper by Eileen Wagner
Dorothy Novatney holds a central place in the history of education in Alaska but who
was she? No one I asked seemed to know. No one even knew if she was dead or alive,
though it seemed unlikely that she'd be alive—after all, she'd be almost 93. After
returning to Alaska for the 1976 dedication of the building named for her, she had
slipped away without a trace.
When I finally found Dorothy Novatney at a retirement community in Fullerton, Calif., she was very much alive. As I enjoyed a couple of long conversations with her, I began to realize why this woman who accomplished so much had quietly vanished. it is just her way of doing things. Get the job done with a minimum of fanfare and don't draw a lot of attention to oneself.
Although she said "I'm feeling my age," she seemed delighted to be "found" and to share the adventures of her 30 years in Alaska, 1940-1970.
Dr. Novatney travelled extensively through Alaska in her role as supervisor of elementary
and secondary education during territorial days. She also served as deputy commissioner
of education, and she started Juneau-Douglas Community College, serving as its first
Dorothy Holverson Novatney grew up in Alexandria, Minn., where her father owned a drugstore. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Pomona College, her Master of Arts in English from Claremont College and her doctorate in adult education from Columbia University. She supervised a WPA project, training teachers of the illiterate and lived in New York for several years.
She came to Alaska in 1940, at the age of 35: "I was at loose ends, and my family thought it would be good for me to help my aunt, who was ill." She taught high school English in Ketchikan for two years, and then moved to Fairbanks to teach at the university.
"I taught whatever had to be taught. I was the only one who had enough anthropology, so I taught anthropology, and I took care of the museum, too."
In 1945, she left the university to work in the territorial Department of Education as the first supervisor of elementary and secondary education, and her real travelling days began. Her job was to inspect schools throughout the state and report back to the commissioner, all on a travel allowance of $5 a day. "I became expert at bumming rides. I rode with anybody. I carried a duffle bag with my sleeping bag, hip boots, and mukluks in it. The commissioner insisted I carry a thermos, knife and matches."
She was prepared for any occasion, whether it was a dance in Atka, or a formal dinner in Anchorage, and always carried an evening dress in her bag. She chuckled at the memory of a little girl asking if that was the only dress she had, after the girl had seen her in a dressed-up, and then dressed-down, version of the same outfit. Dr. Novatney described her housing accomodations during her travels as "very interesting, and sometimes very difficult."
She travelled by bush plane, cargo ship, refrigerated truck, road commission vehicle, and all kinds of small boats. She travelled in an uninsulated cargo plane at 20 below and was the only woman on a military ship, where she was pleased to be given a private stateroom. She rode a "double-ender" in the Pribilofs, and emptied a quart of water out of her boots after clambering through the surf.
Her work included everything from inspecting school furnaces to certifying teachers to reviewing blueprints for new schools. She recalled inspecting a school in the Aleutians at 3 a.m., because of the mail boat's docking schedule. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Adak base school, and the planning and staffing of the Nome-Beltz Boarding School.
She hired all the teachers for several years. She said it wasn't necessary to advertise in the Lower 48 for teachers: "too many people wanted to come to Alaska in those days— we had a good selection of people."
In 1947, she was named deputy commissioner of education under Commissioner Marie Drake. In fact, Novatney, Marie Drake, and a secretary were the Department of Education in the late 1940s. She continued her extensive travels in this job.
Dr. Novatney was awarded a United Nations fellowship in 1953, and she spent four months in Australia studying rural schools there. At one school, they served a particularly elaborate tea. She discovered that her arrival had been announced in the newspaper as that of D.H.Novatney, and they explained, "We expected the visitor to bring his wife."
Retired DOE Deputy Commissioner Nat Cole remembers Novatney well. "She was a very quiet person. I was quite fond of her and quite impressed by her. You could send her to any part of the state, to any part of the bush, and she got the job done without any notoriety to herself. She did a lot for education in the state."
In 1956, Novatney resigned her job with DOE. "I resigned on a Friday. On Monday, I got a call from the superintendent of schools asking me to start a community college. I was the only full-time person. I had a part-time secretary. We held classes four nights a week in the high school. No class on Friday night because of basketball."
The college, which has grown into UAS, opened in 1956 with 200 students. The attorney general taught American government, the head accountant for the Coast Guard taught the accounting classes, and Novatney taught English and started the college library, in addition to her administrative duties.
As I talked to Dr. Novatney, I began to feel I was in the presence of one of my elementary school teachers in the '50s. Very polite, very pleasant, but woe betide you if you didn't come to class prepared.
I asked her if there was anything in her life that she hadn't done that she wished she had. Without a moment's hesitation, she said, "There were several things I didn't quite approve of when I was visiting and evaluating the boarding school in Wrangell. I did not approve of teaching seventh grade science to high school biology students." It's been bothering her for 50 years that the school became accredited against her recommendation.
I asked Dr. Novatney which of her many accomplishments she is proudest of. Still self-deprecating in her 90s, she shrugged off the question. "Oh, I was just an amateur, going in and doing what I could do."
Editor's note: Many thanks to UAS Records Manager Elizabeth Hoffman, who provided the first clue that allowed our reporter to find Dr. Novatney.
Update: Dr. Dorothy Novatney died on December 30, 1999 on Fullerton, California.