John Strohmeyer, civic journalist in pursuit of steel, oil and fish

Behind the dozens of history-stocked shelves in the Alaska Room at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Consortium Library, some people may not know that a living testament of history is seemingly hiding in the room's tiny corner office.

His name is John Strohmeyer and he's not hiding. He's the writer-in-residence at UAA. Strohmeyer was on a writing track early on. He says to get off the farm where he grew up, he wrote for his school newspaper and stayed late, so he wouldn't have to do any chores.

“My mother gave birth to me in the morning and was out pitching hay that afternoon,” Strohmeyer said. “She was one tough lady, but I just wasn't interested in having to do any hard labor.” Years of dodging chores eventually paid off for Strohmeyer. After graduating first in his class at the prestigious Columbia School for journalism in New York he was awarded Columbia's highest honor, the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

After college Strohmeyer took a job as a reporter for the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he eventually met his wife. During his eight-year career there he received a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University, a 10-month appointment given only to 24 people in the world annually that allows journalists to broaden their interests and deepen their fields of specialization. Strohmeyer would eventually receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Lehigh University in Providence.

As Strohmeyer sharpened his journalism skills, his interest in civic journalism – impacting his community through writing – became of greater interest to him.

“The job of a journalist is to sometimes be a voice for people who don't have money or power to present their opinions to lawmakers,” Strohmeyer said.

Strohmeyer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for a series of editorials he wrote for the Bethlehem Globe-Times, now The Express-Times in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he worked for 28 years. Strohmeyer says his newspaper helped diffuse a racial conflict between executives at Bethlehem Steel and their employees. However, for Strohmeyer, the experience was more rewarding than his award.

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“I think the influence of the paper changed the character of that city,” Strohmeyer said. “The satisfaction of knowing you saved a town – that's better than a Pulitzer Prize.”

A few years after receiving the Pulitzer, Strohmeyer took off his hat he'd worn as an editor and put on his historian's hat. He was in pursuit of history.

“It's very hard to report the truth at any given moment,” Strohmeyer said. “When you have time to reflect, you have time to assess the facts and motives, and you have the ability to take a position closer to the truth.”

Strohmeyer, who is listed in Who's Who in America, spent two years writing his acclaimed novel "Crisis in Bethlehem: Big Steel's Struggle to Survive." Bethlehem steel filed for bankruptcy last month, and both the Baltimore Sun and the Express-Times contacted Strohmeyer for his input on the announcement.

“Bethlehem wasn't greatly impacted because we made it a good town,” Strohmeyer said. “We remolded the Bethlehem community by developing a great industrial park and utilizing Bethlehem's position between Philadelphia and New York to attract businesses that wanted to move out of the big cities.”

Strohmeyer says the mark of a real journalist is to be able to call the shots as they occur. A few years after winning the Pulitzer, he decided it was time for a change of pace from putting out a “daily miracle” and deadline writing to teaching and reflective prose.

“When there's blame to be placed you often get conflicting stories, but you apply your great wisdom to determine who's telling the truth,” Strohmeyer said. “The cop-out is to simply give both sides and disappear. That might be good for a daily news story, but if you're writing histor, you have time to reflect on all sides of the story.

Strohmeyer and his wife decided that Alaska was the place with the pace he had in mind.

“I also came so I could do some serious fishing,” Strohmeyer said.

When he wasn't fishing Strohmeyer was teaching at UAA as the Atwood Chair professor in the journalism and public communications department. After his two-year contract was up, Strohmeyer's natural curiosity about Alaska history and his prior experience as a civic journalist led him to begin researching and writing a book he calls his “pride and joy.” Titled "Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska," the book examines the distress brought to Alaska with the 1967 discovery of oil deposits at Prudhoe Bay.

“Alaska has a very interesting history and many people are not learning about it,” Strohmeyer said. “People need to know that we need to maintain the balance between protecting the land and the development of industry.”

Rachel Epstein, special events coordinator for the campus bookstore, brings presentations and lecturers to the university. She arranged a presentation for Strohmeyer in October because she thought he wasn't getting the exposure he needed from the confines of his somewhat secluded office.

“My goal is to get people from different disciplines to share their knowledge and what it is they care about,” Epstein said. “His style is direct and to the point, he judges people fairly and that's very hard to do these days. His book is a classic.”

Strohmeyer is listed in the1980 edition of Contemporary Authors.

After the publication of his book on big oil, Strohmeyer wrote a book about his friend and Anchorage Times owner Robert Atwood, an Alaska pioneer and respected journalist. Atwood died prior to the release of the book, which is now in legal limbo over publishing rights between Strohmeyer and the Atwood estate.

“I'm hoping for definitive legal action from the courts in this matter soon,” Strohmeyer said.

Battling over the publishing rights of a work to which he devoted three years of his life was tough for Strohmeyer. Just when things couldn't get any worse, his life took another turn and changed unexpectedly. His wife of 51-years died, survived by Strohmeyer and his daughter Sarah, who lives on the East Coast and has made a name for herself as an author as well.

“It's been a year and it's still hard,” Strohmeyer said. “My wife was my number one editor and a hell of a cook. She was my soul mate.”

Strohmeyer was devastated and decided that he needed to get out of Alaska for a while. He left for a year to teach at the University of South Florida's journalism department in Tampa, where he and his students discussed the issues and stories surrounding the Bush-Gore 2000 presidential election scandal. Getting back in the classroom was important to Strohmeyer, who says maintaining a civic duty is important for a journalist to do.

“Everybody ought to be writing a some kind of history of their own to get their perspective on paper,” Strohmeyer said.

Strohmeyer came back home to his condominium near Baxter Bog just in time for the end of fishing season. His last catch was a 20-inch rainbow trout he snagged during a rainstorm on one of the Kenai River tributaries. He threw it back.

His love of fishing inspired Strohmeyer to write a novel that takes a closer look at how communities have been impacted by the disappearing Alaska fisheries. It is due for release sometime next year.