FAIRBANKS — Public recognition is not something Nancy Cook Hanson relishes, but because of her innate ability to share her positive spirit with the many people she comes in contact with, public appreciation has a way of finding her.
Wednesday, at its 30th annual banquet, the Midnight Sun Council Boy Scouts of America will honor her with the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award for her many contributions to the community.
As her brother Skip Cook put it, “Nancy is intuitive in discerning and acting upon the feelings and needs of others. She does not seek recognition for herself. This recognition was literally thrust upon her.”
Fairbanks born and raised, the three fulfilling constants in Nancy’s life are family, Fairbanks and faith.
Dear to her heart is the Cook family she was born to, and the Hanson family she married into, as well as the Fairbanks community and the Catholic faith she embraced as a teacher at Monroe Catholic High School.
“I grew up at the perfect time, loving Fairbanks, Nancy said, recounting her pre-pipeline childhood and youth during the 1950s and ’60s.
She loved the freedom of being outdoors so much of the time, her large family, and spending summers at Harding Lake.
She was the fifth of six children born to Earl and Pat Cook in a span of 22 years.
By the time she was 9 years old, Nancy’s older brothers were out of the house but returned within a few years with wives and young families. She credits her three sisters-in-law for graciously involving her in their families and the lives of her nieces and nephews.
After graduating from Lathrop High School in 1971 as class valedictorian, the small-town girl attended the University of Oregon, and found it too big for her liking. She spent her sophomore year at the University of Vermont where her older sister lived, but homesickness eventually won out.
She returned to Fairbanks enrolling at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and living on her own at the family cabin on Harding Lake.
“It was a neat nature time for me,” Nancy said, “and because of Title 9, I was able to play basketball.
“I loved playing the game and seeing how things changed for women (in sports).”
After earning a degree in history with a minor in mathematics, Nancy set out to find her own identity away from her high- profile Fairbanks family.
“It was a choice I made,” she said. “My mother had pretty strong opinions. … I just wanted to be me.”
She accepted a teaching and coaching job in Delta, where she said, “Nobody knew me; What a blessing.”
A few years later, Nancy received a call to teach and coach basketball at Monroe Catholic High School. It was a surprising request because neither she nor her family were Catholic. In fact, she had given up organized religion and believing in a God of love as a teenager when a close friend’s mother and brother were killed in an auto accident.
She accepted the Monroe position, and began teaching history and math, and coaching basketball and volleyball in 1979. By 1983, she was principal.
“It was here I found my niche with kids. They taught me,” she said, while being interviewed Thursday in the Monroe Catholic High School library.
“I love learning and teaching, and I love that atmosphere,” she said.
It was at Monroe in February 1982 that Nancy converted to Catholicism.
Her conversion was influenced by the kids, she said, who always wanted to pray before games, and from attending school retreats, and from the other teachers at Monroe.
The turning point for her, she said, was “knowing inside of me I was a person of hope, a person of spirit and a person of prayer.”
In 1985, Nancy earned a master’s degree in private school administration from the University of San Francisco, and in 1989, she took on the additional role and title of Director of Catholic Schools of Fairbanks. The newer position involved fundraising for a large expansion of the school complex which was dedicated in 2000.
In fall 2003, Nancy decided to retire, take a break and figure out what she was going to do do next.
That’s when the unanticipated happened. Bob Hanson, a widower, and a close friend of her brother, Jeff Cook, asked her out to dinner — twice — before she accepted, and they were married seven months later.
Much to her pleasure, Nancy became a stepmother and an instant grandma to Bob’s grandchildren.
Two short years later, tragedy struck the Hanson family again with Bob’s sudden death.
But the bond between Nancy and the Hanson children and grandchildren didn’t falter as they supported each other and worked through their grief together.
“They’re my kids. They refer to me as their mom,” Nancy said. “We celebrate the holidays together, and I do lots of things with them.”
One of the most amazing gifts she has received in her continuing familial role, she said, was attending the birth of a grandchild.
The Hanson and Cook families continue to celebrate a special pre-Christmas get-together that was started in 2004.
“The inclusion of the Hansons has made the Cooks’ gatherings more fun,” Nancy said.
Nancy’s love for Fairbanks and the people of the Interior continues to grow.
“Fairbanks is a place where you can make a difference,” she firmly believes.
“Always for me, it’s that sense of community. We want good things for one another, to be successful, to be happy.”
It’s common, she said, for Fairbanksans to set aside political, religious, cultural and socio-economic differences and get together for formalized causes and fundraisers.
“If you go to a funeral, you see people from all walks of life. That’s a neat thing. We all seem to impact one another in some way.”
Over the years, Nancy has been involved in many organizations and boards including Rotary, Scouts, St. Raphael Church and as pastoral associate at St. Mary’s on the Lake during the summer months.
She holds two positions — Director of Catholic Schools and president of the Monroe Foundation.
The Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award Banquet begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Westmark Gold Room. A social hour with dinner at 7 p.m. is $100 per person. Reservations can be made at 452-1976.