Family legend: A man, a woman and a bear

Four months after arriving in Alaska from Mississippi, May Hammett was involved in a love triangle with a bear. Four months later, she married bear slayer Johnny Ekemo. Ekemo family photo

May Hammett Ekemo passed away on October 29, 2018. She lived a rich, full life, and also had many an adventure along the way. One was described on the front page of the Cordova Times.

The Cordova Times: Sept. 30, 1944  

Love triangle with a bear 

“You can’t do that to my girl,”says Alaska nimrod, as his trust Winchester spits slug of hot lead


It’s being whispered around town that there isn’t much percentage in being in any sort of triangle with Johnny Ekemo and his best girl, May Hammett — not as long as Johnny packs his trusty Winchester. One fellow tried it. He was big, too — much bigger than Johnny — but, the story goes, he won’t be around anymore.

It seems Johnny and May were over back of Boswell Bay on Hinchenbrook Island the other day, and May was just standing on a stump surveying the territory while Johnny walked off a short ways examining other points of the locale.

Just about this time the big fellow, afore-mentioned, ambled out of the bushes and set his big, brown soulful eyes on May. He fell in love at first sight. 

So, he started walking toward May, possibly to ask her for a date, when he spied Johnny, and momentarily decided he didn’t care for competition. So, he ambled off in Johnny’s direction, snorting in a manner Johnny didn’t particularly like. 


But May’s beauty was too much for him. He had forgotten about Johnny. He had to talk with the beautiful girl on the stump.

But May wasn’t frightened, even when the big guy snorted up to within 30 feet of her.

“Oh look, Johnny,” she said without a tremor, “a big old bear.”

Johnny was looking.

He was also raising his blunderbuss, a .270 Winchester, to his shoulder.  Johnny didn’t like competition either — not that kind of competition. He had never shot a bear before, but like most Alaska boys he’d had a gun ever since the first time he put on long pants, and he knew how to handle a Winchester.

He pulled the trigger and a hot slug smacked Brownie right over the left eye and didn’t stop until it had plowed on through to break his neck. Brownie’s big powerful front legs curled up under him and he slumped to the tundra right now!

Just for curiosity, Johnny placed a steel pocket tape across Brownie’s head. The tape measured off 18 inches — between the ears — just back of those soft brown eyes.

This classic piece was penned by Everett Pettijohn, owner/editor of The Cordova Times, and ran center front page. He happened to meet Johnny and May, plus Pete and Lil Lovsett at the Empress Theatre, where they were about to take in a movie the day after their deer hunt.

As with many tales of bear encounters, the facts often become muddled quicker than the encounter itself; and when May recounted the adventure, she made sure to point out a few discrepancies.

It turns out that Johnny had left May standing on a long log, while he moved over for a clearer view of the sky. He had become disoriented in the timber and was waiting for the 2 o’clock flight of Cordova Air to go over to give him the direction to town.  The couple had split up from Pete and Lil and were to meet back at the boat.

And May described the dialogue with Johnny as follows:

  • Johnny, I see a bear.
  • Reply: Oh, I don’t think so.
  • May: I really do see a bear.
  • Reply: Well, what color is it?
  • May (with the bear now on the other end of the log): It’s brown.

It was then that Johnny turned around to swing his Winchester .270 “blunderbuss” into action, after telling May quietly: Don’t move. Don’t scream. Don’t holler.


May also disputed Johnny measuring the bear’s size with a tape measure.

“What in the world would he be doing carrying that with him?” Instead he used his hands spread out to estimate the 18-inch width from ear to ear.

Pettijohn also failed to mention that Johnny had presented May with an engagement ring just 24 hours before the meeting with the bear.

May, age 22, had been in Alaska only four months when the bear encounter occurred. Four months later, on Jan. 31, 1945, with the bear out of the “Love Triangle,” Johnny and May were married in Valdez.

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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].