BY TOM SADOWSKI
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.
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