The military brought him to Alaska. The cold almost drove him away. The promise of a homestead — an opportunity for his own home and farm — convinced Otis McCormick to settle here for good. While homesteading has a long and complicated history in the United States, the policy allowed Otis and his wife, Arlene, to build a home and church, raise eight children, and contribute decades of hard work and love to the community of North Pole, Alaska.
The McCormicks arrived in 1954. Originally from North Carolina, the Alaska military assignment wasn’t exactly the adventure Otis was looking for.
“If I could have went on sick call and stayed on leave for the next eight months I would have because the only thing I ever heard of Alaska, was it was cold, and the only people that were living up here were Eskimos,” Otis said. “I found that to be totally wrong.”
Otis changed his mind about Alaska eventually, but it took some time. Even after leaving the military, he thought the cold was enough to make him leave the state. But the opportunity to homestead and the gift of community within a church convinced him that Alaska could be a suitable home.
“When we first homesteaded, he came out to spy the land. And when he came to a vacant spot he said, ‘This is where I’m going to build my house,’” Arlene said. “I looked around and we were in the middle of nowhere, and I said to myself: ‘This man has been losing his mind,’ but he wasn’t. He built the house.”
The McCormicks went on to build four houses. In the nearly 70 years they’ve lived in Alaska, they’ve survived house fires and floods, even a harrowing rooftop rescue during which they and seven of their children had to be airlifted to safety by a helicopter. They’ve raised their family and some farm animals along the way. And they’ve watched as Fairbanks’ roads turned from dirt and dust to pavement and the city built up around them. Through all of that though, Otis says his greatest memory is looking for some land where he could build a church.
“I looked and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do because I feel the Lord is calling me to build a church,’ ” Otis said. “I give God the credit for everything that we have done.”
Bishop Otis McCormick and his family have dedicated their lives to improving their Alaska community through volunteer service and church. Otis serves as a pastor at New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ and is a past president of the Fairbanks Kiwanis Club. Helping the community remains the McCormick’s mission today.
“That’s one of the goals I still have at 88 years old, is refining people to make them better citizens here in Alaska and in the world,” Otis said. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a good one.”