The teacher pulled aside the Tlingit boy, whose rapt attention he secured to deliver an indelible message. He said to young Walter Soboleff: “Take care of the old person you are going to become.” “I never forgot that,” Soboleff says. “At first I thought it was a very strange talk. But it just remained with me. I remember that through grade school, through high school, through college, through graduate school. “I can’t forget that day. He just kept saying it to me: ‘Take care of the old person you are going to become.’” The 10-year-old became an Alaska icon who in November turned 102 years old, extending an unfinished legacy founded on peace ― a voice of quiet power that would fight racism while trying to stem the methodical erosion of Alaska Native culture. Today, Walter Soboleff Sr. sits a regal man, whose expressions of rumination produce thoughtful comments, reflecting a sharp memory, an engaged mind and a refusal to hold a grudge. Don’t confuse the seemingly tired eyes for fatigue or disinterest. Soboleff leads anything but an idle life. He serves as board of trustees chairman for the Sealaska Heritage Institute and is willing to challenge trustees with tough questions. He tutors students in Tlingit, a language he hopes many will carry into classrooms of teachers looking to stave off language extinction. He sends handwritten letters and holiday cards to friends, sometimes penning 150 cards in a single sitting. It’s a life dating to a foundation laid in the 1940s when Alaska was steeped in racial discrimination: Aleuts were taken from their homes during World War II. Nome Natives sat segregated in the village’s movie theater. Closer to home in Juneau, Soboleff and wife Genevieve learned they could not rent a home because they were Native. It was to be their first home, but the owner minced no words when telling the couple ― he of Tlingit descent and she a Haida woman ― that he did not rent to Natives. “I told the man, ‘I’m sorry I bothered you,’ and I said it in a kindly way,” Soboleff says of the June 1940 incident. “I didn’t feel any bitterness toward him," he says. “I just didn’t. I just left him. I found a little place for my wife and me to rent near the church.” The rejection came as he embarked on becoming the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s first Alaska Native ordained minister, giving Tlingits a rare public voice that still commands attention. His response became a hallmark of who Walter Soboleff is today: humble, tolerant and benevolent, but unwilling to yield his drive to advance Native causes. It’s a collection of traits that guided him past future setbacks attributed to racism, yet conduct that would draw hundreds of admirers. In the 70 years since being denied a place to live, he brought calm to villages, board rooms and logging camps, taking care of others as well as the elder he has become. “We take for granted today what individuals can accomplish,” says Byron Mallott, a board member with Sealaska Corp. “He did it at a time when it was almost impossible to do ― and to be respected by the non-Native community. “He was right there at the same level as the people who were in charge of our society, our economy, the churches, the educational system ― but he was Native. Think of that in terms of courage, in terms of perseverance, in terms of dedication and in terms of integrity. “Now, think in terms of personal strength,” Mallott says, “and you realize you’re dealing with a giant of a man. There is no question about it.” Growing up Born on Nov. 14, 1908, Walter Soboleff grew up in Southeast Alaska with a Tlingit mother, Anna Hunter, and Alexander Soboleff, a man of Russian and German descent. His father died when Walter was about 10, around the time of the Russian Revolution. Soboleff attended elementary school in Killisnoo and went to the Russian Orthodox school in Sitka for one year before it shut down in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. After his father died, Walter entered Sheldon Jackson School (later Sheldon Jackson College) in Sitka. Already speaking English and Tlingit, Soboleff eventually converted from Russian Orthodox to Presbyterian. He says there was no dissatisfaction with the Orthodox Church driving his conversion ― in fact, the Russian Orthodox Church balked at stripping the Natives of their culture and language and respected the rights of Natives. However, Russian was difficult to learn and attending Sheldon Jackson was financially feasible for a mother raising two children, so it happened naturally, he says. At Sheldon Jackson, he completed grade school and high school, where he took his first theology class. Living in Sitka, Soboleff held several blue-collar jobs after graduating from Sheldon Jackson in 1928. A fire in Killisnoo forced its residents to flee and never return. Several years later during the Depression, he was offered a full scholarship to the University of Dubuque in Iowa, having shown a strong inclination toward the ministry. It was an opportunity rarely afforded Alaska Natives, and Soboleff would not let distance keep him out of class. So he hitchhiked, rode trains with the hobos, and slept in every YMCA room he could find en route to Dubuque. Once there he completed his theology degree and remained for three years in divinity school at Dubuque Theological Seminary. With an increasing number of Native high school graduates attending college today, it’s easy to view Soboleff as simply another graduate. Friends and family members, however, say it’s an accomplishment that requires context. “When most people weren’t thinking about graduating from grade school, he is in college getting his degree,” says Albert Kookesh, a state senator who now serves as chief executive for Sealaska and co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “If you finished grade school, it was an amazing thing for a Native person to do back then,” Kookesh says, “but Walter, he brought that presence with him and he did much more than that.” In the pulpit Soboleff came to Juneau on June 14, 1940, newly ordained and set to assume the pulpit at the Memorial Presbyterian Church. He and his wife arrived on a vessel operated by the Alaska Steamship Co., choosing his childhood state over opportunities in the Lower 48. His first service, launched by the ringing of a church bell, attracted three people: two children and one adult. Most Tlingit residents had left town to fish and camp and weren’t expected back until mid-summer. “When we start on a project, God starts us out in a very small way,” Soboleff says. “So we started out in a very small way with three people in church.” As people in Juneau quickly learned of his being denied a home, he refused to complain. “They talked with me and they became my teachers in the Tlingit culture,” he says. “I learned so much from them. Once we got acquainted, things started to grow. They taught me the Tlingit customs, the history of the Tlingit people. It was a general course in anthropology.” The congregation grew to what friends recall as “standing-room only,” and soon his voice became a fixture on the airwaves. Broadcasts reached people living in villages and even Canada’s neighboring Yukon Territory, starting with 15 minutes every Saturday reading news accounts in Tlingit. Soon Tlingit people found themselves glued to the box-sized black transistor Zeniths usually reserved for updates on the war, politics and the World Series. Portions of his Sunday service were next added to the airwaves. The soothing baritone timbre in his voice enabled him to connect with adults and children for years to come. He left the hellfire and damnation speeches for other preachers, delivering what friends consistently called comforting sermons, as if they were one-on-one talks. One of those people was Mallott, who grew up catching Soboleff’s services about 140 miles northwest in Yakutat. “He was speaking to you, he was speaking to Native people at a time when you didn’t have a lot of that,” Mallott says. “There was nobody else doing it. He didn’t think of it that way. He was just doing it. That’s his way." Civil rights in the background Soboleff’s efforts to build a church and unite diverse groups were set against the backdrop of a historic state civil rights battle playing out in Juneau. The fight was underscored by citywide tableaus, most of them with signs reading: “No Natives.” It took place a quarter mile from Soboleff’s church in the state’s capital. There, Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich and Roy Peratrovich Sr. pushed the Territorial Legislature for a state Anti-Discrimination Act. It failed in 1943, but passed when the Legislature met again two years later, a success largely attributed to Elizabeth Peratrovich’s defense of ancestral lands. “They carried the ball for us,” Soboleff says. “They were instrumental in the movement to eliminate this racial bias. It’s more than one measure. It’s the people working together to make a better world. “We didn’t say we would do this and you will do that. It didn’t work that way. It was a natural occurrence. We just gave the Christian message. The Christian message is love your fellow folk. For God is love.” Soboleff wasn’t among the loudest voices for civil rights, but he was willing to weigh in with his own concerns, including a letter to Washington, D.C. Russian Orthodox priest Michael Oleksa noted Soboleff’s 1943 reaction to an Army ban on contact between soldiers and Tlingits: “The order [banning contact] places the entire Native population under a class of folk as might be termed undesirable. You will agree that a ruling to that end is unjust and indeed not consistent with principles underlying our democracy.” His words were routinely concise, poignant, effective enough to attract members from the non-Native community. Soboleff believed in backing his anti-segregation sentiment and opening his doors to anyone wanting to attend. “I asked them one day, ‘how do you feel about inviting other people to be members of the church?’ They said it would be fine,” he says. “Word got out in the community that Memorial Church is welcoming others to come. Not that they were unwelcome, but it was established. Now others were coming to our church.”