Lois Lester

‘A different kind of air’

It’s nice here that you can breathe a different kind of air.

— Lois Lester

When Lois Lester visited Alaska for the first time, she fell in love. Not with a person, but with a glacier.

“This was way back when Portage Glacier was where you could touch it,” she says. “I decided, ‘okay, let me come back and see what’s what.’ ”

That was during a summer more than 50 years ago. At the time she was a high school teacher in Hartsdale, New York. The following year she did come back to Alaska thanks to a one-year sabbatical. She fell in love again. This time, with a man who would become her husband, the father of her four children, and a partner in building a life in the state.

Like many who only plan to stay in Alaska for a short while, it was the natural beauty, the opportunities, and the people who turned a one-year adventure into half a century of experiences.

Lois served on boards and taught driver’s ed for the AARP. She remains active in the community, serving on the Anchorage advisory board for the Salvation Army. Thousands of Alaska students will know her as a chemistry professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Not only was she the sole Black person in the department, she was also the only woman on the faculty. Lois, who grew up under segregation, learned to take each day as it came. Some days were good, and some were bad, but she says she only worries about what she can control. It’s a philosophy she’s taken into her retirement.

“I refuse to complain about the weather no matter what it is because I have no control over it. So, I take it as it is,” she says. “Each day I get up and say, ‘it’s a good day’ no matter what.”

She says her time in Alaska has been more good than bad, and she has observed some changes. Early on the Black community was tight-knit. As it grew, and she and her husband grew older, they started to know people in the community less intimately, though her active participation with the Alaska Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority keeps her engaged.

People still ask if she wants to stay in Alaska. And without hesitation or confusion she always responds, “Yes. I do. This is my home.”

Today, her home is filled with Black figurines, and portraits and quilts depicting famous Black people. She spends time doing puzzles and bowling when she can, taking it one day at a time.

As she reflects on what makes her life here special, she says it’s most apparent when she travels. “There’s just too many people,” she says with a smile. Her aversion to crowds is less about the people and more about having the space to breathe, to be.

“It’s nice here that you can breathe a different kind of air.”

If you grew up under segregation as I did, you can figure out or know when something is wrong.

— Lois Lester