‘She wasn’t afraid of adventure’: Alaska author Lael Morgan dies at 86

a portrait of a woman smiling
Lael Morgan appears on Talk of Alaska on June 14, 2016. Morgan passed away on July 26, 2022. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Longtime Alaska journalist, author and historian Lael Morgan died last week at age 86.

Morgan led an unconventional life, telling the stories of others, and creating her own.

She came to Alaska from New England with her husband in 1959, said her adopted daughter, Diana Campbell of Fairbanks. Campbell said Morgan wanted to earn money to sail around the world — an adventure she half completed before returning to Alaska and embarking on a journalism career that took her around the state and beyond.

“The Juneau Empire, the News-Miner, Jessen’s Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and then the Tundra Times, which was probably one of her most important things,” said Campbell.

a black and white photo of a woman standing behind a car
A young Lael Morgan. (Lael Morgan collection)

Morgan’s work at the Tundra Times gave her insight into some of Alaska Native people’s pivotal fights to protect their way of life.

“She really had a front row seat to land claims,” said Campbell. “The Tundra Times covered land claims. They also covered the Rampart Dam project, plus Project Chariot.”

Morgan wrote a book about Inupiaq carver and Tundra Times founder Howard Rock, “Art and Eskimo Power,” as well as many others, including an acclaimed history of Gold Rush-era prostitution, “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Goldrush,” published by Epicenter Press, a company she co-founded in 1988.
Morgan’s many other pursuits included freelance photography and writing for publications like the New York Times and National Geographic, a stint as a private detective in Los Angeles and retracing Jack London’s travels in the South Pacific.

“She was nomadic in that way, and she wasn’t afraid of adventure,” said Campbell. “She wouldn’t say she was a women’s libber, but she didn’t think that being a woman held her back from anything. She was always working. She never retired.”

Another Morgan project brought attention to the buried history of African American soldiers who built the Alaska Highway.

“We had two reunions of Alaska Alcan veterans and they had personal photos,” Morgan told KUAC in a 2017 interview. “We made a museum show and took it all around. And then Colin Powell took it to the Pentagon.”

Morgan pushed for the history to be taught in Alaska schools.

Campbell said she first met Morgan when she had her as a journalism instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and was initially intimidated by Morgan’s no-nonsense style.

“I was terrified of her,” said Campbell. “She scared the dickens out of me.”

But they eventually formed a bond.

“Native people were important to her. Of course, I’m Alaska Native myself, and she wanted to see an Alaska Native do well in journalism,” said Campbell.

Campbell said the connection deepened and Morgan, who had no children of her own, informally adopted her.
“She said, ‘I’m going to be your mother.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ said Campbell.

Campbell underscored that Morgan was not all about work.

“She also collected people, oddball people, and would sometimes see things in other people that other people did not see,” said Campbell.

A memorial service for Morgan is being planned for Anchorage around Labor Day but Campbell said Morgan’s ashes will be buried at Fairbanks Birch Hill Cemetery.

“She’s actually going to be buried next to Georgia Lee, a woman she found out about through her book, ‘Good Time Girls,’” said Campbell. “Georgia Lee was maybe Fairbanks’ most famous good time girl.”

Lael Morgan’s burial will be followed by a celebration of life event.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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