We had to work hard to overcome the fear of failure. We gotta succeed. That kept us on the edge.
— Jacob Anaġi Adams
I join the family of Jacob Adams, the people of Utqiaġvik and people throughout Alaska in mourning the death of a great civic leader and businessman. In the 1980s when I was head of Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), at a meeting with radio station managers from KBRW — what was then Barrow — and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, we dreamed up the idea of a national Native news service. Because APRN already had a means to distribute programing via satellite, we ran with the idea. National Native News started in 1987 with three months of funding from National Public Radio, and we immediately started raising money for month four. My friend Eileen MacLean, the then-state representative from Barrow, urged me to fly to her community to approach the president of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of 12 created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That was my first meeting with Jake Adams.
In those early years I visited Jake many times. He was not a person to have a serious conversation with over the phone. At some point I met his elegant wife, Lucille. They struck me as a very solid team. And I also got to know Jake’s colleague, Oliver Leavitt. They were like brothers — a force, a friendship for the ages.
When APRN convened business leaders to consider a public radio endowment, Jake served on the group. I remember Jake and Lucille at the KBRW studios during the station’s annual fundraiser. In addition to asking people to call in pledges, Jake’s Rolodex sat in front of them and during the music breaks, they called people they knew. When the person picked up, Jake said, “KBRW. May I take your pledge?” No one could say “no” to that.
Elmer Rasmuson, one of the Foundation’s founders, summoned me for a meeting soon before his death. He told me he had high regard for Jacob Adams and urged me to find out how Jake thought we could best support the aspirations of people on the North Slope. When Jake and I met, he told me that what he heard most often during his village travels was that there needed to be a way for elders to age in place. Out of that conversation came the development of housing in five North Slope villages to serve seniors and others.
When Rasmuson Foundation began its annual education tour of Alaska for Outside grantmakers in 1997, ASRC became a partner, as they are to this day, providing an opportunity for our national foundation visitors to travel to Prudhoe Bay and Utqiaġvik. Jake was present for many of those visits, presenting a program on the importance of whaling to people of the North.
In later years, we supported the dream to have a community foundation serving the North Slope and continued to collaborate on community needs in the North: a shed for Eskimo whaling captains and a boat for North Slope search and rescue, internet service for Tuzzy Library and new technology for Iḷisaġvik College, a playground in Point Hope and sports equipment for after-school programs.
When Rasmuson Foundation worked with the Alaska Humanities Forum to create documentary films about fascinating Alaskans who had a significant impact on the state, Jake was one of the first chosen subjects. The premiere of the film at the Barrow High School Auditorium was the last time I saw Jake and Lucille.
Years ago I sent Jake a photo of me with what I called “My Big Fish” — a king salmon from Alexander Creek, as I recall. He immediately sent me back a photo he also labeled “My Big Fish.” It was a bowhead whale.
Foundation Chairman Ed Rasmuson grew close to Jake as well. “Jake has been a great friend for many years,” Ed told me. “I admire everything he did for the people of the North Slope. I had the great privilege to go out on the ice with his crew three times to hunt for whales.”
Jake was always thinking of how to share his culture.
It’s safe to say that if Jake hadn’t come through with month four of funding for National Native News, it wouldn’t be celebrating its 33rd anniversary this year. It’s one of so many ways he left this world better than he found it.