A Homer local has been named 2022 Historian of the Year by the Alaska Historical Society.
Tom Kizzia is a journalist and author who came to the Kenai Peninsula nearly five decades ago. He spent three years with the Homer News in the late 1970s before moving to the Anchorage Daily News, where he worked for 25 years.
He’s written about everything from the history of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe to the failed effort to bring Jewish refugees to Alaska before WWII to the cowboys at the head of Kachemak Bay over his five decades as a journalist. He’s also the author of three books, including “The Wake of The Unseen Object,” “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” and, most recently, “Cold Mountain Path.”
Kizzia’s award, formally known as the James H. Ducker Historian of the Year Award, is named for longtime Alaska professor James Ducker, who served for 30 years as editor of the Alaska Historical Society’s journal, Alaska History.
KBBI’s Hope McKenney sat down with Kizzia on Tuesday to discuss his writing, his inspiration and what’s next.
The following is a transcript of an excerpt of the full interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tom Kizzia: One of the things that made Alaska really exciting to me, right out of college where I was kind of an American studies, history and American literature-type major, was that everything was so new and fresh and all these big decisions were being made that had been made in other states. It seemed like if I was a reporter in another state, I would be in a pack of journalists trying to cover some incremental decisions. And up here, huge decisions were being made, and there were no other reporters around to write about it. So I really felt like it was a historical moment that I was writing about. And it was with a kind of sense of this sweep of history that I was watching — Native land claims and building the pipeline, and creating all the national parks up here. All those things that were happening in the ‘70s when I got here. It was a really exciting time, creating the Permanent Fund, limited entry, huge decisions, and it felt like history was being shaped. And so, you know, there’s that cliche about journalism, that it’s the first rough draft of history. I really felt like I was almost writing as a historian, or providing information to future historians. So I always had that interest. And then, over time, as I began to realize, even though it’s a new state, it has a rich and deep past, and I would find stories within that past to start telling. So as I looked around for good stories to tell, some of them were in the past. And those were the ones I enjoyed digging out and had the indulgence of the newspapers to let me do that.
Hope McKenney: So you just received the 2022 Historian of the Year Award from the Alaska Historical Society. Why did you receive this award? Tell me a little bit about “Cold Mountain Path,” and also your Alaska journalism that led to this moment?
TK: Well, you know, my previous book was the one about the Pilgrim family, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness.” And it was set in McCarthy, in the early years of this century. And I had included a couple of chapters about how we got to that point in McCarthy, kind of the ghost town decades, that made my first draft of that book, and my editor in New York thought that it was slowing down the momentum of the family story, which was kind of a page-turner. And so they had me boil that down to a page or two. So I pulled that information out, I kind of wanted to find a home for it. And when I read from those deleted chapters out in McCarthy, when I had a public reading, everyone wanted to know more. So I set out to do a second book just about those ghost town years. And that was the origin of the “Cold Mountain Path” project. And it got to be a bigger project than I expected. But it was, you know, a local history, but it was a locality that had all these sort of mythic overtones, and so I tried to get some of that in the book as well. And it’s just been really great. You know, we just published it last year, it was published by Porphyry Press, which is an Alaska publisher, who was just getting started out there. And the reception has been great. And I think the book seemed to capture for people something about the old Alaska that’s passing in our own memory. And one of the reasons I was drawn to the story was because it was recent enough history that I could still interview people and sort of use my journalistic techniques to write about history. I didn’t have the secondary sources that one usually has, I was kind of digging it all up myself. That was great, great fun and a great challenge.
HM: And I like hearing you talk a little bit about your work as a reporter. I mean, you’re such a figure in this state. Your journalism spans nearly five decades at this point. I mean, how does your work as a reporter, as a journalist, inform this historical writing?
TK: I don’t know. I think one way is that I had developed as a journalist a sense of storytelling, and trying to find stories that would have a kind of, you know, their own page turning drama, or at least stories that would carry you down the column inch of the newspaper page. And I wanted to then take that storytelling quality and apply it to the history. So kind of a narrative history as opposed to something that was sort of a dry collection of facts.
HM: And so, you have nearly five decades of being a journalist in this state. You’ve written three books, you’ve now received the Historian of the Year award. What’s next for you?
TK: What does it all mean? I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of things I want to write. And so a lot of things that I still want to write and I’ll do the best I can to get those things done. But I don’t have any grand plan at this point. You know, I think when I came up here to work at the Homer News, I thought I was going to write the Great American Novel. And I don’t feel a great compulsion to attempt that at this point. But maybe I’ll surprise everybody or surprise myself and head in that direction.