37 halftones

Between Breaths

A Teacher in the Alaskan Bush
By Sandra K. Mathews



In 1958, Alaska was not yet a state; it was one of the last frontiers in the West and offered a life of adventure to anyone willing to relocate there. Donna Joy McGladrey, the daughter of a Methodist minister, had recently graduated from college and was ready for what Alaska promised.

McGladrey became the first band instructor in Dillingham, a remote fishing village 350 miles west of Anchorage. Before she arrived, someone showed her a photo of Dillingham and her immediate reaction was, "It's terribly primitive." But later she reported in a letter to her family, "I SAW A GLACIER! WOW! . . . Fall colors are the most gorgeous I've ever seen. And the mountains--Wow."

On her first day of class, the new music teacher discovered there were no instruments for the students to play--she had to convince the parents, who depended on the annual salmon harvest for income, to buy them. But her students were excited about music and they energized their young teacher as much as she inspired them.

McGladrey made new friends, learned to appreciate Alaska and its ruggedness, and decided to make her home in the forty-ninth state. In those days before instant communication, she and her family maintained close contact through the mail. Sandra Mathews, McGladrey's niece, made extensive use of that correspondence to tell the story of her aunt's experiences in Alaska. Mathews also interviewed people who had known McGladrey and supplemented the letters and interviews with archival research. Between Breaths reflects Donna McGladrey's willingness to adapt, accept, and, perhaps most importantly, to rely on herself.

Contributor Bios
Sandra K. Mathews is a professor of History at Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln.