Live the best life you can for as long as possible
This obituary was first published in Anchorage Daily News on Dec. 15, 2019. It was prepared by Sheila Toomey and the Kaplan and Sather families.
Mel Sather died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. After participating in two years of successful clinical trials for lung cancer in Houston, Texas, and New York City, he succumbed to complications related to his treatment.
A celebration of his life will be held on Wednesday, Dec.18, 2019, at 4 p.m., at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
It will be a hell of a celebration for a hell of a life.
Mel was born in Seward, Alaska, during World War II to an orphaned Aleut mother whose Egegik parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Many people thought Mel, the adult, was the smartest person they ever met.
Mel, the kid, was bored by school, which maybe explained his reputation as a prankster — to use a polite word. He set Mt. Marathon on fire once — purely by accident, he insisted.
And one winter day, he and a friend climbed atop a building in downtown Seward, rolled the snow there into a humongous snowball and dropped it on a police car, crushing its roof. The officers who rushed out of a nearby bar didn’t catch the boys, but the statute of limitations hadn’t quite run when his mother, Jennie Sather, decided Seward was too small for her ambitious child.
Mel, aka “Corky,” had been honing his entrepreneurial skills from the age of 5, selling anything he could find that people would buy: the local newspaper to those arriving on ships was easy. As was booze rescued from a fire. A fuel additive not available in Seward but needed by boat captains presented more of a challenge. Eleven-year-old Mel hitched a ride to Anchorage, bought a supply of the chemical, and enjoyed his huge mark-up.
On a slow day, for a small fee, he would don his mother’s pink bathrobe, a towel turban, and tell fortunes with a Magic 8-Ball. Neighbors thought it was so cute. Mel thought it was so profitable.
Jennie and Mel moved to Anchorage when he was 14. He blossomed in the big city.
He was still a student at the old Anchorage High School when communications pioneer Augie Hiebert hired him at Northern Television – a full-time job that, among other duties, included handling the control board for KTVA-Channel 11 and occasionally hosting the classical music program on radio station KNIK.
This was back when Alaska got its Outside news a day late, only after Mel went to the airport and picked up the film of yesterday’s Seattle TV broadcasts.
Today Hiebert’s daughter Cathy runs the Alaska Broadcasters Association, which in 2005 inducted Mel into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. She remembers him fondly: Augie Hiebert sold his empire in 1997 and, in 2000, suffered a major stroke. “That’s when Old Mel stepped in,” said Cathy. “He introduced Dad to a video production team at Mirror Lake Middle School,” she said. Augie worked with the kids, got them a radio license and helped them put a station on the air. “It gave Dad a whole new perspective on life,” said Cathy. “It gave him a reason to get up in the morning.”
After high school, Mel enrolled at Anchorage Community College but his job, where he was learning everything he could about broadcasting, ate up his time and ACC finally kicked him out for excessive absenteeism. (He finished up later).
1963 was a bad moment in history to be a healthy young man, not in college. When his draft number came up, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, figuring that, as an Alaskan, he’d be assigned to the naval base at Adak.
He figured wrong.
For nearly three years, he navigated the humid waters of Vietnam in a small boat, sneaking past Vietcong guerrillas, hiding from enemy bombers and breathing in the Agent Orange that 50 years later would deliver him to death — searching for downed American pilots and delivering them to safety.
In later years if he talked about the war, which he rarely did, he would tell a story about the time he was “walking through the jungle” and came face-to-face with a tiger. He and the tiger sized each other up for a few moments; then, accurately assessing the situation, both turned and walked away.
During this period, Mel met and married Coralynn Gilpin from Wisconsin. In 1966, after his discharge — his Expeditionary and National Defense Service medals earned the hard way — the couple settled in Anchorage, where they raised three sons and Mel returned to Northern Television as chief engineer and operation manager.
He left Northern TV to teach electronics and math at Bartlett High School. Over the years he stayed in touch with many of his students, hired some of them and enjoyed watching them succeed.
After five years at Bartlett, he joined Mat-Su Community College as head of the Electronics Department. He left teaching to start his own company, Octagon, and helped lead Alaska into the new world of mass communication.
With offices in Anchorage and Seattle, the company built rural stations from Barrow to Valdez, constructing much of what came to be the public broadcasting network in Alaska, including the satellite interconnection that enabled stations to get and receive national programming. He built KNBA in Anchorage and the Hopi station in Arizona.
At the same time, he continued servicing local commercial stations. As the new century dawned and KTUU-TV/Channel 2 moved and modernized, it was Mel who put up the satellite dishes that let them suck in programming from around the world.
“He was the guy to call when you had a big broadcasting project,” said long-time KTUU anchor Maria Downey. “And it didn’t hurt that he was a really nice guy as well.”
“Mel was the original MacGyver,” said a co-worker. “He could keep us on the air with a Leatherman, duct tape and piece of wire.”
In the 1980s, after a divorce, Mel met and married Diane Kaplan, then CEO of the Alaska Public Radio Network, currently president and CEO of Rasmuson Foundation. Together they explored the world. By the time of his death, Mel had visited 49 countries on six of the earth’s seven continents and cranked his performance as a curmudgeon into a high art form.
Tied to a bungee cord, he flung himself off a 364-foot cliff at Zambia’s Victoria Falls; he danced with the Masai in Tanzania; dined with a prince in Dubai; and ate red ants in Texas. At home he was apparently determined to own every gizmo known to man. Those late-night $19.95 TV “deals” were aimed directly at Mel. You may have had the same gadget he had, but his was bigger and he had it first.
Mel is survived by his wife, Diane Kaplan; children, Jay (Marlene), Jerry (Gina) and Charles (Renae); grandchildren, Harley, Amanda, Bradley and Christin Sather and Matthew Davis; great-grandchildren, Cecelia Sather and Erikki Redies; and mother-in-law, Eleanor Kaplan.
Until he was 40 years old, Mel Sather believed his father was Kenneth Sather, a no-account his mother married then kicked out when he mistreated Mel. At 40, Mel’s DNA turned up in the family of another man, a soldier reportedly stationed in Seward during the war. So, though his father is certainly dead, there are likely some survivors unlisted here.
Mel was buried on Dec. 8, 2019, with full military honors, at Memorial Park Cemetery in downtown Anchorage. The family suggests that friends who want to do something in his memory make a donation to the Mel Sather Public Media Internship Fund at Alaska Community Foundation, 3201 C Street, Suite 110, Anchorage, AK, 99503. Click here to donate: https://alaskacf.org/blog/funds/mel-sather-public-media-internship-program/.
Mel was understandably a little confused about religion. His mother, born Russian Orthodox and raised in a Baptist mission, had him baptized Methodist and sent him to Catholic catechism; and then he married a Jew. But thanks to his Aleut heritage and his Vietnam experiences, Mel understood more than most that death is the inevitable outcome of life. His secret was to live the best life he could for as long as possible — curious about every day, fiercely fighting the illness that killed him, loving his family, rejoicing in triumphs large and small, not just his but the universe of people he cared about. He is missed.