Mike Dunham quietly sips his afternoon coffee at corner table in the bustling Black Cup coffee shop. A worn leather satchel that undoubtedly used to be full of story leads and dozens of reviews is propped up in the chair next to him.
“I discovered early on that I am better with a pen and a pad than I am with a camera,” Dunham chuckles. “If I’m on a hike or something, I will do a sketch rather than take a photo and I’m not a good artist, I’m just better with a pen.”
Over Dunham’s 40 year career as a newsman, he saw a lot of things change but in his heart he always remained a product of a uniquely Alaskan upbringing. The son of Bureau of Indian Affair contracted teachers, Dunham spent his childhood in small Yup’ik villages across Alaska.
“Of course we didn’t have a lot, so my reading material was an Encyclopedia Britannica,” Dunham explains. “We didn’t have movies or television so we would tell stories that could last several days. You’d fall asleep and when you woke up, the story would still be going.”
As Dunham recalls his childhood, a tear wells in his eye and slowly rolls down his cheek before being wiped away by a lone cocktail napkin lying on the table. He pauses in quiet reflection before continuing.
“When we moved to Homer I got deeply into music. We had a piano in Togiak too, but in Homer there was more of a reason for it,” Dunham animatedly explains. “All of the old-timers wanted to dance to polkas and schottisches so all of the kids were expected to know at least one polka, schottische or waltz that they could play when everyone came over to the house. That was our entertainment!”
In 1967, when Dunham’s family relocated to Anchorage, he thought he had moved to the cultural center of world.
“There was art, music and theatre! I thought I had moved to Paris,” said Dunham who immediately began working at KENI.
Although Dunham briefly left the station to attend college at the University of Washington, he returned in 1974 and stayed for nearly 20 years.
“I did pretty much everything you could do in radio,” Dunham says as he sipped on his second cup of coffee. “I wrote ads, radio dramas, cleaned antennas and even washed the floors. Of course, in those days, if you had a question, you could just go to the station owner and ask them directly because they were always there. Nowadays, I don’t even know who you would talk to.”
When the station transferred hands in the early 90s, Dunham knew it was time to move back to something local so he took a job writing art and entertainment reviews for the Anchorage Daily News.
“Looking back, I think they kind of took a chance on me because I didn’t have a journalistic background, but I quickly learned to embrace the corrections page. It’s a little like going to confession in front of thousands of people, but it all works out in the end,” quips the recently retired Dunham.
While Dunham’s beloved Alaska celebrates the 150th anniversary of its cessation from Russia, he will pay tribute to a childhood spent reading the encyclopedia with the publication of his first two works of non-fiction: The Man Who Sold Alaska: Tsar Alexander II of Russia and The Man Who Bought Alaska: William H. Seward.
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press