Fred Rungee, fire veteran and humanitarian, dies at 93

BY TOM SADOWSKI

Photo by Tom Sadowski, January, 2007

 

Fred Rungee, Alaska resident, forest fire control veteran and humanitarian died on Friday, March 27th, 2015, at the age of 93 after valiantly fighting several health problems. Born in City Point in New Haven, Connecticut, he attended Wesleyan University and was immensely proud of his service to his country as a conscientious objector with the fledgling Smokejumpers of the Civilian Public Service program during World War II. He diligently worked toward a world at peace throughout his entire life.

As a woodsman, Fred Rungee qualified as a True Alaskan. He was an adventurer who looked comfortable in a canoe or kayak, on snowshoes or a motorcycle, in an ice boat, helicopter, or Oldsmobile. More often than not he could be found in the woods, on foot with his double bit axe (of which he was one of the last masters), his model 70 Winchester hunting rifle and a 60 pound pack. He was a true leader by example, who after a brief residency in Montana made his home in Alaska where he worked for the Bureau of Land Management as the Fire Management Officer of the Glennallen District responsible for all forest fire control in that area –about the size of New York State.

In the early 1950’s it was only Fred Rungee and “Judge” Henderson who handled all of the fires in the district and it was not unusual to come back to the station after camping out on a fire for a few days to find a number of notes tacked to the door reporting new fires in the area. He is credited in reports as far back as 1953 for “dedication and fortitude… in keeping fires of this area within manageable limits”. In 1972 he was awarded a Bronze Smokey Bear Award –the highest national honor for outstanding contributions to statewide fire prevention efforts. In one incident, he chanced upon a slow moving fire while in the back country in Alaska on a dirt bike in the vicinity of the Klutina “road”. Unable to get help and refusing to leave a potentially disastrous fire, he took a good deal of time and effort to cut a line around the fire –with his pocket knife.

Of his more than 70 years in Alaska, he resided primarily in the town of Glennallen although he was an avid traveler. Upon retirement in 1978, he moved to the Slana area to a cabin which he himself built two and a half miles from the nearest road. Packing all the materials and even a massive wood stove he needed for the cabin on foot, he did concede using a buckboard to move in his piano. Over the years, hundreds of people made the 5 mile round trip hike just to visit and experience his rare charismatic charm.

He had a huge influence on people because he was unusually kind and exceptionally tolerant. He was more than willing to listen to everyone and offer them his genuine, heartfelt support. He was more than generous; he was magnanimous and notwithstanding this greatness, he was genuinely humble.

New recruits assigned to his district were sometime suspicious of his delightful demeanor as they felt no one man could be that nice. He had courtesy to spare and his own brand of wilderness grace. Newcomers might have tested him but his niceness was invariable and unassailable. Fred Rungee would win people over and then they would start being nice –or more agreeable than they had been. Some even competed to be nicer than Fred but that top spot of human decency had already been claimed through a lifetime of practice –a lifestyle of generosity and a lifelong commitment to peace and harmony.

Rungee never discounted people. It didn’t matter if they were spurned by society and semiconscious in some substance induced stupor, he always reached out to help. Fred was a model to all he met. Never preaching, he taught human decency by example. He also taught piano and hockey to young Alaskans and befriended so many local Alaskan Natives that he was named an honorary member of the Mentasta Tribe. His quiet notoriety was widespread as the State of Alaska honored Fred with “Fred Rungee Day”.

He could play Rachmaninoff on his Alaska wilderness piano, recite Southey, and cook dinner for twenty. A skilled story teller and humorist, he could tell first-person bear attack stories and tales that few residents knew. His spontaneity transformed dinners into parties; he was fairly adept at throwing serving spoons into large bowls of mashed potatoes from across the room. He would put joy into conversation and enthusiasm into the tired but his trademark gesture was the promotion and consumption of ice cream which was always shared with friends, any time of the day, during warmish summers and brutal Alaska winters.

He may have never married but he was the father figure to so many fire fighters who got to know him. His virtual immediate family is extensive and he will be greatly missed. Fred is predeceased by his sister Elinor Rungee Smith and survived by his nephew Kent Smith, and his niece Deborah Smith and his many, many good friends in the Copper River Valley, throughout Alaska, the Lower 48 and abroad. We may have lost him but his example lives on in those of us lucky enough to learn from him. What the world needs now is for us to remember how he showed us to live: in peace and good humor.

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Tom Sadowski was a crew foreman of the El Cariso Hot Shots, U.S. Forest Service. He also worked in Alaska as an Assistant Fire Management Officer of the Glennallen District for the Department of Interior. Presently he writes a regular weekly humor column called “Just Saying…” from mid-coast Maine where he now lives. Contact: sadowski at tidewater.net

23 thoughts on “Fred Rungee, fire veteran and humanitarian, dies at 93”

  1. Thank you so very much for this article about the larger than life character of Fred Rungee. I first arrived in Alaska in 1985 to work for BLM at the Glennallen Field Office as a seasonal employee. This year marks year 30 for me and those years have been filled with experiences resulting from a career in fire suppression and resource management all across Alaska, but mostly in the Copper River Valley. Fred was legendary when I arrived and has been a beacon of inspiration to all ever since. Thanks for sharing!

  2. And I also thank you for the wonderful article !
    It is easy to think of Fred and remember endless good things. Much harder, at least for me to put them down to words. I first met Fred Rungee in the spring of 1968. My wife and I had moved to Alaska and he sat down with us and helped us find a strip of land to file on. I can still remember that first meeting with him! Fred did that to people. The smile was infectious and sincere. And so was every thing else about Fred. I ended up working at the BLM field station at Glennallen for the next 9 years as a seasonal fire fighter. They were good years, made even better by moments and contact with Fred.
    Once in 1976, my wife and 2 kids were leaving the field station at the end of a fire season, when Fred waved us down and handed us a box of ice cream. I told him that we couldn’t take it because it would melt before we got to the cabin. He just smiled and said, “sure, hang on”. And returned with 4 spoons and with that smile and gleam in his eye, waved us away.
    Thank you Fred for the memories and the gift of knowing how we all should live life.

  3. So long my good neighbor. We will miss the good conversations of your visits. Your ever so implanted smile, so much to just make you smile no matter what. You will always be a part of our life that shall always be remembered by us fondly. Thank you Sir for the memories.

  4. Fred had been a devoted friend to me and my family for over 60 years.I will miss him for the rest of my life.I will miss his stories of his 21 flat tires on his first trip to Alaska,about being treed by a bear,playing his piano as the music rang through the trees and ice of Carlson Lake.Fred was one of the kindest most gentle man I have been blessed to know.Rest in Peace my friend from your long journey,you made the world a better place while you were here.
    Love,
    Rosalie

  5. God rest your soul Brother Fred. I appreciated the times we had together when you visited me in Chistochina. the world is a better place because of what you did for others.

  6. I was lucky enough to work and play with Fred at Glennallen and Carlson Lake, I shot my first bear past Carlson Lake, a blueberry bear great eating. Fred had a vested interest in sending hunters there for bears. He packed his rifle all winter, not wanting to take any chances(once bit, twice shy).
    Every night, weather permitting he would collect a gallon of ice cream and make his rounds, John Englbretson’s family in Glennallen, the Copper center Pete’s, Frank and Eilsie Stickwan and girls in Tazlina and Katy Johns family in Mentasta. He showed Fire Training Films and taught all the kids to drive while they were small enough to sit on his lap and steer.
    The older folks could relate to Fred as he would show up at a remote fire with fresh supplies in the middle of the night, only a tough fearless person did that sort of help on a regular basis. He was just taking care of his fire fighters, the Red Hats.
    Just a few years ago when I was working on the Valdez terminal we would talk about Fred and his adventures. I think Fred helped many of His young friends to become the people they are today. In those pre-pipeline days there was not much going on in the Copper Basin and Fred was a bright Light for many.
    You can go up behind the BLM station and find stumps that Fred cut off flat at ground level. A humble joking giant of a man.

  7. Thank you for this great article. RIP Fred. many times as kids we hiked to his cabin & enjoyed the adventure. My whole family had great admiration for him. Thanks for the fun & memories.

  8. Fred Rungee was one of the kindess, soft spoken man that I can ever remember knowing besides my father. I remembered as a youngster how he like to create activities for us kids in Gulkana Village. One of the activity that all us kids liked was the top contest we had, he bought all us kids tops, and gave us prizes. He showed us movies, bought us candy. He will be remembered and missed for all that he has done for our village. May you RIP Fred, Thanks for all that you done us kids in Gulkana.

  9. John and I knew Fred all our lives and have many great memories. Sledding, rafting and some sort of strange single ski contraption we tried to go down the hills with. Fred was a truly singular person and we are richer for having known him.

  10. Goodbye to a good friend of many years — many years of a 1/2 gallon of ice cream or a bag of oranges left at the door, distributed from the ample trunk of some splendid old car that he was driving. We always knew who they were from, as did the other folks on Fred’s long trapline of friends. And if we were home some times he’d stay overnight with us and play the piano and tell stories. We snowmachined past Judge’s old cabin yesterday on the last good trails of the winter, and remembered that 15 or so years ago Fred and Mary canoed over there with rolls of roofing and re-covered the old roof to keep the cabin standing a little longer, talked and enjoyed the sun. Fred was the best of companions.

  11. Thank you, Tom for writing such a wonderful story of Fred’s life. Fred just glowed love and happiness. His smile was infectious. I loved going to his cabin at Carlson Lake and him sharing the beauty of his home, and how the little things in life are special and fun like ice cream – and packing a piano 5 miles into his cabin so he could enjoy the wonder of music. What joy, love and caring he brought to the world. He even loved those who were not so nice to him. Thank you, Fred, for living love.

  12. I remember going to Fred’s place on Carlson lake as a child. Ice cream was always on the menu, even in summer. There was a creek near his home that had ice in it almost year round. And he loved making it for us. I’ve spent a number of nights up there with my uncle and other family. Fishing for grayling and paddling by the island with the pair of loons that always nested there. He used to give me a knife almost every time I saw him, and I still have a few. I will miss him, and all the stories he would tell.

  13. Thank you, Tom, for the wonderful tribute to Fred. How lucky we all are to have called him our friend.

  14. Tom,
    What a wonderful tribute to such an amazing man. Fred was the best example I could ever have had of a man growing up. Bill and I were so lucky to have had the opportunity to live by Fred on the BLM compound. Freds friendship with our father and family has left a huge mark on our lives. If only everyone could have a Fred Runge in their lifeet.

  15. Fred Rungee was a rock and a rudder for so many of us, and the impersonation of generosity. I think God broke the mold when Fred was born. I treasure the memory of playing flute while Fred played a composition of his father’s (I think) and Ray Heaton played violin.

  16. Many years ago Fred surprised us one summer day b7y stopping in m on his way to Homer to visit Al Clayton. Of course he showed up withy a half gallon of Ice ream and enthralled my three young boys with some wild stories. As he was getting ready to leave in one of his big, old junkers he called the three young boys to the back of his car. After rummaging around for a few minutes he came up with a sack of silver dollars and gave one to each of them. The world has truly lost a peacemaker and a friend to all.

  17. Fred was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He and my dad worked together for the BLM during the early 60’s. We were always happy to visit him and hiked to his cabin where we heard all of his great wilderness stories. My sisters and I were kids then and he was especially kind to us. My family stayed in touch with him until a few years ago when my mother developed memory loss. Bless you Fred and all your many friends.

  18. Fred alway brought the sunshine with him when he visited and left us feeling happier for his time spent with us. He was authentic through and through, as these many testimonials point out. To know Fred, was to be loved by Fred. He took the time to see you, even small children, he always made the time. A role model of the most excellent order. God speed Fred Rungee, you have blessed so many with your smile!

  19. Thanks Tom, for the wonderful description of Fred. ” Uncle” Fred was a frequent visitor to our house in St. Louis as I grew up—he and my dad, Ted, had met as conscientious objectors in WWII and were life-long friends. I remember the requisite stirrup cup whenever Fred left—a full blender full of malted milk with loads of ice cream needed to be consumed by each person. And, we’d always find silver dollars hidden around the house.

    I was lucky to grow up and enjoy working with Fred on theGlennallen helitack crew, starting off with Jim Lofton as my supervisor. What great memories I have of a guy who made you want to do your absolute best because you didn’t want to disappoint him. And his 50th birthday when we bought him half a gallon of ice cream for each year—it didn’t last very long since he shared it with anyone who walked by the front porch.
    Many fine memories of trips to Carlson Lake over the years while I went to graduate school in Fairbanks. Fred and Ted even visited us at our remote field research station and of course brought ice cream. Fred grabbed the Swede saw and cut and split a huge pile of wood between trips up the peaks and all over the island.

    So many fond memories of this amazing, strong, gentle, peace loving man. May his memory and his peace-loving ways live on in all of us.

  20. I knew Fred when I was a little tiny girl living on the BLM compound outside of Anchorage. Fred lived on the compound with us at that time. Fred is just an integral part of that time and someone who has never been far removed from my heart. I loved him as much as Santa Claus and maybe even more. He was available. I remember when he bought ice cream it was never a quart but a gallon and I remember after his up close and personal with a couple of bears that even though he always said if you leave the bears alone they will leave you alone, that he never even went to the outhouse without his rifle. Just so many wonderful memories and I am so grateful he touched so many lives and that I just happened to find this wonderful article about him. I have always wondered if he was still alive and if so, what he was up to. I always imagined him still at his cabin in the woods outside of Glenallen. Thanks for such a great ariticle. May he continue well.

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