The life lessons that Howard Luke shared with friends and family over his lifetime are alive and well. As word spread of his death at age 95, a steady stream of people gathered Sunday in a bright sunroom at Denali Center in Fairbanks to share their memories and to sing songs honoring this remarkable elder.
Two of his grandsons even made campfire tea at Howard Luke’s camp, then brought that special drink to the sunroom to share with visitors.
“I really don’t think they make men like that anymore,” said Julian Thibedeau, who attended Howard Luke’s spirit camp as a youth. “I came as soon as I found out. He had such a big impact on me, I had to come.”
He wasn’t the only one to benefit from Howard Luke’s mentoring.
Sonny Luke said his grandfather taught him to never give up and to believe in himself.
“One time he had me fix something and I said, ‘I don’t know how.’ He said, ‘I can’t hear you. Try.’ It took a few hours but I finally did it. He was sitting in his rocking chair and he said, ‘How do you feel about yourself now?’ “
“The lesson was to never give up,” Luke said. “Don’t defeat yourself before you try.”
Norman Carlo turned to Howard Luke during a sad time of his life.
“His wisdom was just a big help in my healing,” Carlo said. “He heard and learned from our elders. They were powerful people. He had them within him. His words were powerful. His presence was powerful.”
Howard Luke competed in the North American Sled Dog Race long ago and was a regular supporter at the race start every year. When he got too weak to walk around the staging area and talk with mushers, community members always made sure he had a special front-row seat to watch the race.
Thibedeau remembers the time Howard Luke told him he ran all the way to Nenana and back in one day.
“The way he described it, it was like an everyday thing,” he said.
Of course, this was the man known for switching dogs in his dog team while on the run.
“He was a real McCoy dog musher,” said Michael Atwood.
Helen Peters fondly recalled Howard Luke’s mother as a quiet, tender lady.
“She used to tell him all the things that happened in the past,” she said.
For instance, he learned that people used to walk everywhere.
“I saw five men from Tanana when I was a little girl, they were going to Denali, walking in the springtime. They trained dogs to carry for them, they didn’t carry anything but their guns. And they walked from Tanana to McKinley Park.”
Howard Luke apparently took that to heart. One time, a dog team left his home at Chena headed across the river to Fairbanks. Howard Luke left after the team, but when it arrived, he was already sitting at the Pastime Cafe, drinking coffee as the team pulled into town.
Many remember the newspaper photo of Howard Luke racing to the finish line — ahead of his dog team — wearing a pair of moccasins.
“When he was training for dog mushing, he’d run all the way around Farmer’s Loop from his place,” Howard Maillard said.
He was an expert at medicinal plants in Alaska. Longtime friend Sarah McConnell recalled the time he went to the doctor and received the sad news that he had a tumor growing in his stomach. He made an appointment to return a few days later for more tests. Meanwhile, he collected stinkweed, starting taking baths and making a poultice of stinkweed to place over that area of his stomach. On his next visit, the doctor said, “Mr. Luke, it’s the darnedest thing, I can’t find that tumor anymore. It’s gone. But you’re turning green.”
“I’ll be damned,” said Luke, and walked out of the office, without ever revealing his home remedy.
The former Doreen Simmonds, who now goes by her Inupiat name Nutaaq, used to live next door to Howard Luke.
“When I started getting sick, I would go to bed,” she said. “Him, he starts to feel a sickness coming on and he would make himself walk. He would walk it away.”
She cherishes the memory of the special friendship Howard Luke shared with her son when he was 5, 26 years ago. Howard Luke had just finished making a dog sled. He took it to a big snowbank outside and invited little Eli along for its first run down the snowbank.
“So Eli got on the sled, Howard sat behind him and I can still see them. Down the bank they went. That picture of them is etched in my memory,” she said.
His greatest legacy may be the confidence he instilled in young people.
“He was always telling people, ‘Feel good about yourself,’” McConnell said. “Say, ‘I did it.’ If you put this to your heart, you can do anything.
“He touched so many lives in a good way.”
“We looked up to him as great chief, a great leader,” Norman Carlo said. “He led all the way to the very end. One of his last words to me and my brother was, he was not gonna give up. He also told us never to give up.”
“He was a warrior to the end,” said Mo MacCracken, his daughter.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 4599-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.