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The Rungs of Learning with my Grandma, Karen Parr

My grandma, Karen Parr, grew up in California, moved to Germany to teach and eventually ended up in Alaska where she became a consultant, a politician and retail gift shop owner.

But her depth and breadth as a human and leader goes way beyond her resume - she's also a singer, musician, actress, former chair of the Retirement Community of Fairbanks, active in her local Rotary and still finds time to write letters to the editor of her local newspaper.

She has contributed so much in her 90 years and continues to inspire me beyond belief.

Enjoy this month's Rungs of Learning with Grandma Parr by watching the whole unedited interview or reading it below.

What did you study in college and how did that play into your career?

I was born in Oakland and my family moved to L.A. County when I was in elementary school. From there we moved to Fresno because my dad dreamed of moving back to his hometown to live on a farm. He had saved all of his money from working at Lockheed and felt philosophically that children should be raised on farms.

Even though I was expected learned how to run a farm (pick cotton, raise chickens and milk cows), there was always this expectation that I would go to college at U.C. Berkley because that’s what they thought was the best school. No other options were considered, it was as if it was preordained for me.

I originally started my studies in mathematics but at the end of the year I decided that wasn’t for me. Back then, there were really three choices given to girls – you could be teacher, a secretary, or a nurse. So, I majored in education for a while, but I got bored with the coursework. They didn’t teach us to teach – they taught us a lot of history and theory and it wasn’t intellectually challenging.

I found out that Berkeley had a program that you could pick any three areas of studies and take a chunk of studies in each of the three, so I chose English, history, and French.

After I finished my bachelor’s, I moved to Oregon to be a teacher at a two-room school that was right next to my uncle’s farm. It was temporary because they usually required a degree of science and education so eventually, I went back to school and got a second bachelor’s.

Eventually I got a teaching job in Germany where I taught for two years and that’s where I met your grandfather. I ended up getting my Master’s in English and a year past the Master’s in Education Administration after we moved to Fairbanks, Alaska.

I was never a principal because the school superintendent didn’t think women should be in leadership positions at all. So I quit and took a job at heading up a new college created by the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaska native nonprofit organization supporting the local tribes.

My career in teaching and education ended not long after that but there’s so much in my experience that I applied to my future work and interests. I think there’s a lot of value in a broad liberal education no matter what you go into. It teaches you to think, read and write.

Tell me briefly about your political career. Why did you get into politics? What did you learn from that experience?

I was interested in politics, and I always used to help your grandpa when he ran for office. I helped with his campaigns, and he wanted to do fundraising for our democratic state leaders so I met all these people at fundraisers. He was on the Borough Assembly [like a county council] for one term and when he left and won his seat in the State House, he urged me to run for the Assembly seat that he had vacated. It was an appointment, and I wasn’t selected that first time but the next election I went for it again.

The second time I put my name in the hat, I was back in the school district teaching and there was conflict between the school board and the Borough as it related to how the budget was set. They decided that someone on the assembly to represent them would help so the teachers put together a committee to elect me and I got the job.

Once on the Borough Assembly, I was immediately appointed President-Elect of the Alaska Municipal League (a state nonprofit that connects local governments and resources to each other). I was astounded because I didn’t know anything about them.

This experience gave me self-confidence and it reinforced that I can do a lot of different things.

You've lived most of your adult life in the interior of Alaska. What have you learned about yourself living in such an extreme climate?

It’s reinforced my natural self-reliance. I’ve always been a person who’s wanted to be able to do anything and that set the tone for my whole life. I learned that I can endure extreme temperatures and I enjoyed the challenge of living in Alaska. I’ve always been self-confident and this played to my strengths.

You owned a retail gift shop for many years. How did the idea get started and what were some key takeaways from being a small business owner?

A friend of mine approached me about her buying her specialty Alaskan gift shop. It was something new to learn and I was in a transition from teaching because we had been in Florida for a year so your grandpa could finish his PhD.

In owning the shop, I learned about business bookkeeping and tax administration, hiring and firing (I’d never done that before), and about buying and selling things that people want.

I also learned about how the wider world lives sometimes. I had always been amongst people like me and when I had the store, I encountered people different from me. I was surprised at how many dishonest people there were out there (theft, check forgery, etc). I came across quite a spectrum of a behavior I hadn’t seen before. Teaching is a fairly cloistered activity – you’re in the same environment with the same type of people so running our retail gift shop was a very expansive experience.

Describe Raven Landing and the idea behind the concept. How long had you been dreaming of a place like this? What did it take to make it happen?

[Raven Landing is the first senior housing community in Fairbanks, Alaska]

I had been thinking about the problem of there not being a place for seniors to be comfortable and social and live a full life and have it be safe. The only other place in Fairbanks I originally envisioned I’d end up as a senior had gradually evolved to more of a nursing home than an independent living place.

Concurrently, a colleague of mine had lost her second husband and she was needing a place to live where she could have her friends and family around her. I drove her around town trying to find a place for her to live and I learned that the senior projects were low income only. At the same time another friend, whose husband had passed recently, and I were having lunch and talking about the need for a place for independent seniors who could live a live and enjoy activities and have friends and even be productive. Since there wasn’t one in Fairbanks, my friend said, “let’s build one!”.

We started gathering other people who would be interested in building a place like that and pretty soon we had a committee going. We started holding open community meetings in a conference room in the mayor’s office and put a notice in the newspaper inviting people to participate. It started with a handful of people, and it didn’t take long for us to outgrow the conference room with sometimes as many as 40-45 people attending

We met once a month for ten years and used the group as a sounding board for discussion and to field ideas. We agreed that it should be a place with a lot of freedom, a lot of activities, a place where we could get good meals and where we had private bathrooms.

Then we engaged an architect, but the hardest part was finding a place to build it. We needed five acres for what we wanted to do, and we knew we didn’t want to be out in the sticks so we could be accessible to family, friends and the community. We found an old apartment complex that was on enough land and the buildings could be demolished but we needed money.

We started going around making speeches all over town, collecting money. We decided to make it a nonprofit modeled after a hospital foundation because we got some input from a local property owner that many national senior living chains looked at building here but declined because they couldn’t make a profit. We eventually got some grants and loans to bring the project to life.

We incorporated in 2004 and opened our first building in 2010. [They started with 20 units and there are now 95 units, a community center, a restaurant that is also open to the public and a performance stage. More information about Raven Landing can be found here].

The whole social ambience here turned out better than we dreamed. There’s a feeling of camaraderie and everybody is friendly. And that’s just remarkable. And the staff is astonishing – we are so lucky to have people who are so dedicated and good at what they do.

You’ve lived a full life so far and just turned 90. What are you focusing your learning on these days?

I’m learning to let go of those mementos and things that have delineated my whole life that would be of no interest whatsoever to my grandchildren. I need to take one last look and then throw them away. And that’s hard.

The other thing is I’m trying to learn to take better care of myself exercise wise and I’m certainly not near where I need to be spiritually.

Lastly, you make a legendary gin and tonic. Please share your recipe so the rest of us can learn from your mastery :)

Okay. I had to write this down because I just dump it when I make it. Fill a glass about half full of ice cubes. Put in three ounces of gin, a quarter to a sixth of a lime (depending on how big the lime is). Squeeze it to get the juice out and then dump the lime in the glass and stir it so they get muddled. Then add four ounces of tonic.

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