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Friday, May 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Alaskan memories: A Fairbanks woman with a big heart of gold

Stanton Patty
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Editor's note: For 34 years, Stanton Patty worked for The Seattle Times. He retired in 1988 as assistant Travel editor — no doubt with more bylines from Alaska than any staff member before or since, combined. Alaska is his home state (he was born July 9, 1926, in Fairbanks) and his love. And now, it's his book.

This month, Epicenter Press of Kenmore is publishing "Fearless Men and Fabulous Women," stories of some of the people Patty met along the way. Today, we present an excerpt from the book.

FAIRBANKS — "Come in, Dearie! Come in!"

It was wartime in Alaska. Eva McGown was on duty.

The World War II years crowded my hometown with thousands of soldiers, airmen and construction workers. Housing was so tight that the military command took over the city's two largest hotels and several buildings on the neighboring University of Alaska campus.

Government officials tried to discourage GI wives from following their menfolk to the North Country. Many came anyway — and found an angel named Eva McGown.

Eva, a widow with a meager income, had a part-time job as Fairbanks' official hostess. Her office was a cluttered desk just off the lobby of the Nordale Hotel on Second Avenue. There she presided like a queen, wearing a wide-brimmed fruit-salad hat, a fuzzy pink stole, teardrop earrings and several loops of imitation pearls. On anyone else the ensemble might have been ridiculous. On Eva, it was positively regal.

"Come in, Dearie," she would call to all who ventured into her corner of the lobby.

Often the visitors were military wives, newly arrived in Fairbanks, with babies in arms and other tykes tugging at their skirts. They were tired and discouraged. They had no place to stay. Somewhere along their disheartening searches for lodging, sympathetic Fairbanksans had suggested that the women "go see Eva McGown at the Nordale."

She moved quickly

"God love you," Eva greeted one tearful military wife. "Everything will be all right, ye poor darlin'."

Eva jotted down an address, handed it to the young mother, and sent her on her way. When the woman was out of hearing range, Eva placed a telephone call and calmly announced to a surprised homeowner: "I'm sending the loveliest lass to spend the night at your house."

Then, before the startled citizen could decline, Eva hung up the telephone.

"There," she said with a smile as bright as the midnight sun. "There's always a way."

It was said that Eva carried an inventory in her head of all the spare bedrooms in Fairbanks. She also arranged for beds to be set up in church basements and auditoriums — sometimes even at the city jail.

One day a young woman arrived from England to wed an Air Force sergeant stationed at Ladd Field, on the outskirts of Fairbanks. Eva arranged the ceremony, filled St. Matthew's Episcopal Church with her own friends — and paid for the couple's hotel room for the wedding night.

Dogs were welcome, too

Eva McGown was the angel of Fairbanks during World War II, when she helped military wives find housing in the jam-packed city.

Then there was the time that a young man entered the hotel with a giant husky in tow. He approached Eva shyly.

"Come in," Eva called. "There's plenty of room. My, he's just a puppy. Now what can I do for you?"

The caller needed lodging for himself — and the dog.

"We'll find something, Dearie," Eva said.

During a visit to Juneau, Alaska's capital city, Eva was introduced to a stranger.

"Oh, I know who you are — you're the lady who puts everyone to bed in Fairbanks!" the man exclaimed.

Few who met Eva McGown during those hectic times knew that the cheerful, pixie-like woman with the golden heart had experienced aching loneliness here.

In 1914, at age 31, Eva Montgomery departed her native Belfast, Ireland, for the love of Arthur McGown, a part owner of the Model Cafe in Fairbanks. Yes, truth be known, Eva was a mail-order bride. She crossed the stormy Atlantic in what she described as "a filthy boat," then traveled by train to Seattle. There she boarded a steamer bound for Valdez, then spent more than a month on the trail in winter to reach Fairbanks. She traveled by horse-drawn sleigh and dogsled in bitter cold, staying nights in roadhouses that were little more than shacks.

"There were rough and tough men on the trail," Eva recalled. "But never a cursing word did they say in my hearing. They gave me hot bricks for my feet and wrapped furs around me."

Eva Montgomery and Arthur Louis McGown were married the night that Eva arrived in Fairbanks, Feb. 26, 1914.

Alaska sold itself quickly

Fairbanks back then was a raw mining town — wooden sidewalks, muddy streets, rickety store buildings, riverboats, saloons and brothels.

"At first, I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' " Eva recalled.

"Then I was taken by the beauty of Alaska, with its tall sentinel trees, pure white snow and a glorious sky like a sea of glass on fire. I love Alaska with every bit of me — and I always will."

Arthur McGown died in 1930, the victim of a bone tumor. Eva was left a bewildered widow with almost no money.

"That's when I learned about loneliness," she said. "It's a heavier load than any woman should have to carry. In our little log cabin I heard no sound but the clock ticking and my own footsteps.

"Then came a day when I knew I must get busy. I went to the wee church, and I knelt down and said, 'Lord, I am ready.' "

Eva left the cabin and moved into the Nordale Hotel — Room 207 — for the rest of her life. She supported herself by selling magazines and taking odd jobs until the topsy-turvy years of World War II, when Fairbanks put Eva on the payroll as the city's helpful hostess.

In 1953, Alaska's territorial governor, B. Frank Heintzleman, issued a proclamation naming Eva McGown Alaska's honorary hostess. It happened as Eva was being honored during a broadcast of the television program "This Is Your Life."

A few years later, Eva became the first woman ever to win the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce distinguished-service award. She stood on tiptoes to see over the lectern and told a cheering audience: "I never thought I would qualify for this. Now the only thing left is Heaven."

Room 207 was popular

Eva's Room 207 was a gathering place for friends. There she would serve tea in fine-china cups, along with cookies — and sometimes a glass of sherry or Irish Mist. The tiny hotel room was strewn with keepsakes and clothing: Eva's spectacular hats, scarves, gloves, costume jewelry, fancy pillows, books, letters, postcards, newspaper clippings and faded photographs. And there was a little hot plate that Eva used to cook her morning porridge.

Even Eva's bed was covered with garments and mementos. There seemed to be no place for her to sleep. We figured that maybe she just pushed things aside at night and slipped under a blanket.

The clutter may have cost Eva her life. On the night of Feb. 22, 1972, the Nordale Hotel caught fire. Eva McGown, age 88, was trapped in her room and died in the flames that destroyed the hotel. Investigators said she probably couldn't find her door key in time to escape.

In the rubble, they discovered the hotel safe. It contained a small box belonging to Eva. Inside were a clump of soil and several pieces of dried Irish moss — wee bits of Ireland that Eva kept with her all those years in Fairbanks.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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