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Michael John Kirk (1924 - 2013)

Obituary
  • "My parents Jess and Lorraine Parks met Mike in Juneau in..."
    - Diane Greenleaf
  • "I have good memories of Mr. Kirk both in HS and seeing..."
    - Doug Burrows
  • "Rest in Peace, Mike Our family knew Mike in Berkeley,..."
    - Laurel Westwick Cox
  • "When I had mr. Kirk in class we had to listen to radio KIRK..."
    - Raymond Johnson
  • "Rest in Peace Mr. Kirk and I always left a School Board..."

Michael John Kirk esq. Rev. Rex. OED QED passed away peacefully on August 22nd, in a room with a view, at Wildflower Court in Juneau. He was 39.

His strength had declined following a hip fracture in April (presumably a result of Kryptonite exposure), but his mind and wit were sharp throughout.

Michael was born Günther Hans Kirchheimer in Mönchen-Gladbach*, Germany, on August 6, 1924, in a time when leaving home was the best choice many people could make. His family made its way to England, and then America, which promptly shipped Michael Kirk right off again to serve as a medical clerk during the Second World War. Among the stated highlights of his time in the army was being demoted in person by his unit's commanding general. (The next day, another officer who knew that general, upon hearing what Mike had done to get himself reduced in rank, promoted him on the spot.)

*("Pronounced Mönchen-Gladbachchchhhhhhhhhhhh" -MJK)

For a man who loved to tell stories, he spoke little of his youth, but he would say that he learned more at his English, Quaker boarding school, St. Christopher's, than at any other point or place in his life. The school, and the war itself, made Mike an ardent pacifist, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a fighter. Mike was always willing to stick his neck out, and to ask very hard questions. Once discharged and returned home to school at Berkeley, he was active in the protest movements of the day, largely as an advocate for civil rights. You don't need weapons to make a difference, just an idea you're committed to and a sense of what's right –but you also need a plan, and a strategy.

After graduating with a pair of master's degrees and his teaching certificate, and having gone as far west as he could without getting his feet wet, Mike turned north to Alaska (via some time in the Pacific Northwest, first), having accepted a teaching position at Juneau-Douglas High School back before it was even hyphenated.

In his math classes, he would not allow students to use the word "nice," as he always thought there was a better word to choose. He also liked to say "suffer under me, little children!" –a Typical Mike play on words. Some of them got the reference, the rest were given a very short reading assignment.

He was the bane of the school administrators of his era, and immensely proud of it. He was irreverent where it counted, unconventional, outspoken, witty, informed, and rarely missed a School Board meeting. He believed in the sanctity of knowledge, that students must be prepared for the world of work, and that education is not a business. Mr. Kirk taught math to over 5,000 Juneau kids, was a debate coach, an advisor, and even gave German lessons through the local college (after they agreed to let him teach it his way, of course).

Having successfully defended himself in his infamous wrongful termination trial against the Juneau School District (he had been let go for being "insubordinate" (can you imagine?) but the judge ruled that he should not have been fired as he had done nothing illegal), a victorious Michael Kirk would eventually decide to retire on his own terms, and gifted the district two stained glass panels that still glimmer in the windows of the Marie Drake library. They say "Tempus Fugit" –Time Flies. They are beautiful, always pertinent, and, in context, a closing statement in his defense against the administrators who found him too unconventional. Through these panels he shall forever have the last word, and all that any future generations will ever see of the disagreement that created them is beautiful artwork.

Mike was a grand patron of the arts and of the people of Juneau. He volunteered countless hours and funds to facilities, programs, and artistic endeavors, including the stained glass at the City Museum, the Whale Project, our local GED program, public radio, the theatres, meals on wheels, the senior center, and the Pioneers' Home. He was on the board of the Teen Club for over thirty years, helped create the Zach Gordon Alumni fund in honor of his good friend, and helped rebuild McPhetres Hall after the fire. His final act of love and support to the people of Juneau was the establishment through his will of the "Simon and Anna Kirk Memorial Scholarship Trust Fund" to benefit current and future students of Juneau-Douglas High School.

He was also a tireless public advocate for common sense and reason, unafraid to speak truth to power, or to poke the sleeping giant. He gave of himself in every way, as much as he could. Our community is made better by the efforts of this cautious yet absolutely fearless man who made so much of living.

Michael was multilingual, but his warm, chipper laugh sounded the same in all of his languages. If you ever asked him "how are you?" he'd say "Naughty" and chuckle, but under his prankster veneer, Michael was a gentleman who would always call you to say thank you, gave kids books for their birthdays, probably paid for more lunches for his conversation guests than anyone else in town, and even as an octogenarian with a cane, he would still want to stand when a lady arrived at the table.

If you were ever in his class, he still remembered you. If you got an A or could make him laugh (he often joked that they were the same thing), he still remembered your name.

He felt that research was always necessary to understand something, and that you could always understand something better. He appreciated fine craftsmanship, marveled at mathematics, always went to a play on its closing night, and loved the way Juneau's mountainsides sometimes make there own clouds. He also would have caught that grammatical error immediately. Did you?

It is rumored that everything Costco sells is named after him.

He was preceded in death by his dear parents, Aenny (Anna) and Simon, and his brother Ernest, and survived by nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, adoptive families, and his brother David of Kitchener, Ontario, throughout whose life Mike "drove absolutely crazy, but was as true and loyal a brother as anyone could ask for." He will be remembered forever by those who knew him as "Opa Michael," and by the thousands of Alaska children to whom he was a teacher. "Hey-! Hey-! Some might even remember me fondly!" he would probably add with a grin and that chuckle.

He was surrounded by those who loved him right to the end. To these many people who did so much for him, he would surely want to say 'Thank you,' for you have made all the difference in the world to him. You were his friends, his companions, his family, and he loved you.

A celebration of life will be held October 13th at 2:00 at the JACC. Bring a story to share.

Anyone wishing to make a difference in the world in Michael's memory should consider this: next time someone you know takes on the expense of college, offer to pay for his or her text books, and ask in return only that someday they do the same for someone else.

Always question, always wonder, do the right thing, never stop learning, keep some puns in your pocket and a smile on your face and conviction in your core, and never forget: time flies…
Published in The Juneau Empire on Aug. 30, 2013
bullet Civil Rights
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