Cordova Chronicles: This Belle continues to ring

Cordova’s Belle Mickelson recognized in AARP’s Bulletin 

Probably few Cordovans notice a large bronze bell mounted near the edge of the Civic Center’s upper parking area.  Youngsters, including my grandkids, never miss it.  Sitting on 4X4’s at ground level, it has a sweet, resonating tone when struck by rocks, and you know what a passion throwing them is for tykes.

Even fewer locals may know that at one time that bell was the city’s fire alarm.  It was mounted on a tall wooden tower across the street from today’s Moose Lodge, and had a long rope attached to the ringer, which hung down just out of the reach of youngsters such as myself.  We, too, would try to hit the bell with projectiles, much to the annoyance of residents of a nearby apartment, as well as the Service Transfer gas station just below it on Second Street.   Ironically, the tower was a victim of the Big Fire of 1963, which destroyed much of downtown Cordova.

Nonetheless, there is another bell that continues to resonate in Cordova, and all over Alaska.  In fact, its peal has reached across America, touching over 38 million people.  That’s the current membership of the American Association of Retired People (AARP), which sends out a monthly 60-page newspaper-style Bulletin.

Its October 2016 edition included a feature about Make a Difference Day, and there in the Table of Contents on page 3 was a photo of none other than Cordova’s own Belle Mickelson, with her bright white hair and sparkling smile, attired in a blue Copper River Fleece jacket, playing a fiddle, surrounded by four Alaska villagers also making the happy sounds of good music. The lead for the article was “Do good for others.  Find out how older adults are volunteering at youth-serving organization.”

Many of us may have overlooked the fact that Belle was one of six recipients of an Encore Annual Purpose Prize presented at a conference in San Francisco this summer.  Encore.org is a non-profit nationwide organization that promotes “second acts for the greater good.”  The four page story about that conference included three photos, one of them showing Belle with five youngsters, captioned “The Rev. Belle Mickelson, 68, with student musicians in Cordova, Alaska.”

When I called Belle to talk about the article, she wasn’t home, so I left a message.  Two days later the phone rang, and it was Belle, just back from a week of Music Camp at Pt. Hope.  She and her son Mike had been way up north to help make a difference in a place perhaps more well known for it’s famous basketball teams, who also love the sweet sound of a 25 foot jump shot swishing through the net, and have several state titles to prove it.

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Typically, Belle wanted to talk about her time at Point Hope, rather than some award in the Lower 48.  I frantically tried to take notes on 3X5 cards; Belle’s energy often translates into allegro tempo conversations.

Besides the great music and dance sessions with the people of Pt. Hope, a highlight was time spent with Shirley Gordon, the wife of now deceased Episcopal Bishop Bill Gordon. The Gordons lived in Pt. Hope from 1943-1948, and loved it so well they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there, but Bill was elected Bishop of Alaska at age 29 and hence traveled all over the state.

“Shirley is now 93 years young and still loves exploring”, said Belle.  “The chance to be with the Pt. Hope people and see her old home place brought tears of happiness to her eyes.  When the couple lived at Pt. Hope, everyone in the village lived in sod homes and Bill traveled to nearby villages by dog team.” Belle came to Cordova in 1976, working with the Forest Service.  She has been the local Adult Music Camp Director for 23 years, and was ordained an Episcopal Reverend ten years ago.  She has been involved in countless activities here in Cordova.

When I again asked her about the article and award, she said:  “I totally feel this was a “We” prize, and should go to so many wonderful people that have kept this program going.”

One of my favorite phrases in the AARP article states:  “As any self-respecting boomer will tell you, there’s never before been so many older adults with so much gas left in their tanks.”

Clearly, this includes one amazing Cordovan, whose tank is stuck on full, and has made a difference everywhere she has been.

A shining Point of Hope, this Belle continues to ring.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].