FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — In October 1970, a young man landed in Fairbanks on a 24-hour layover between his old life and a life that would come to touch countless people throughout Alaska.
That man was Scott Fisher, known to most now as “Father Scott” of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the century-old log church on the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
Fisher, who is now retiring, arrived as a volunteer layworker at the encouragement of the Episcopal Church’s “Flying Bishop,” Bishop William Gordon Jr., after graduating from Kenyon College in Ohio with a major in English and a minor in religious studies. Bishop Gordon met Fisher at a summer camp, and Fisher was struck by how un-fatherly Gordon appeared sitting on a porch wearing shorts.
“I’m sitting down with him as an East Coast kid and I said ‘Doing what?’ and he said, ‘I see your job mainly as just sitting around drinking coffee and listening to people,’” Fisher said on a recent weekday afternoon, with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. “And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.”
Gordon set Fisher up with some winter supplies, flew him to Fort Yukon in his plane, spent the night and then dropped Fisher off in Chalkyitsik.
“Where the heck am I?” Fisher recalled thinking about the village.
He said he made a bit of a fool of himself in the first few days, showing just how foreign rural Alaska was to him, but the community took him in. He said those lessons have stuck with him to today.
“I’m just doing what folks taught me in the Bush,” he said. “You watch out for each other. You help those that need it, like screwed up white guys who don’t know anything. It’d be a real drag if he freezes to death. People are inevitably kind, so all I’m doing is what people taught me.”
Fisher later moved to Stevens Village and then settled down in Beaver before he was encouraged to go to seminary by Gordon in 1973. After seminary, he worked out of the Fort Yukon Church and later the Fairbanks Diocesan Office, traveling throughout the villages, delivering communion and giving services at funerals.
He decided to become the rector of St. Matthews in 1991 while standing on the coast of Point Hope.
“I was walking around on the beach, arguing with God,” he said. “I was having this argument with God saying, ‘You know, this is really fun just hanging out in Point Hope and Kivalina, wandering around in Allakaket or Chalkyitsik.’ More or less — and I don’t know how to say this without sounding weird — but the sense I had from God was, ‘It has been good out here, and if it’s been good out here, it’s because I’m out here and guess what, I’m in Fairbanks, too.’”
And shortly after that, Fisher took over at St. Matthew’s, where the hall is lined with portraits of the many reverends who have served the congregation.
With long hair, unruly sideburns and colorful Converse sneakers, he’s been known to many as the “hippy” priest. That was the first impression Rev. Anna Frank, a longtime colleague and friend of Fisher who remembered seeing Bishop Gordon fly into her village as a child, when she met Fisher.
“That darn hippy,” she said with a laugh. “That hippy-looking priest. Well that was what he was anyway when he came to Alaska.”
But for nearly everyone who’s had an opportunity to share a moment with Fisher or attend one of his services, he or she knows Fisher is far more than the colorful sneakers and frayed jeans that peak out beneath his robes.
“Scott, I would say, is a good, kind person and a good listener,” Frank said.
St. Matthew’s has long been a mixed congregation, bridging the Native and non-Native communities. Frank said Fisher has lived up to that.
“That’s why people like him so much,” she said. “People are people to him. We’re all human beings regardless of their color or their race. We’re all important to him.”
At his second-to-last service at St. Matthew’s, the 67-year-old Fisher had the calm, comfortable demeanor that comes with the hundreds of services and the familiarity with the people in the pews. He cracked jokes, recalled distant stories and embarrassed his teenage granddaughter.
During the service, he stood among the front pews, leaning forward on the dais to talk about his time with the congregation.
“You deserve better than I can give you,” he said.
Now, Fisher isn’t sure what’s next, but he’ll be missed.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Shirley Gordon, the 92-year-old widow of Bishop Gordon, who still attends services today. “It’s going to be a real loss, but I can understand why you have to move on. … He has a great love for the people of the Interior, and they reciprocate it.”
As his future stands ahead of him, he has spent a lot of time reflecting on the first few hours that he spent in Alaska.
“I still remember that first 24 hours when I flew into Fairbanks in that October,” he said. “Some of that I still remember in the sense that Fairbanks always seemed more like a jumping off place, more so than Anchorage. When I run into tourists, I’ll usually take them out in front of the church and point at those hills and say ‘half of the state, north of you.’ My suggestion is any way you can, go north. Get out of here, get out of town, see what it’s really like.”
As for what’s next, Fisher said he doesn’t know.
“I didn’t have any big deep voices saying ‘I want you to go to Madagascar,’ but I had the sense it was the time to do this for a variety of reasons, and I still don’t know what I’m going to do. All I know is on Sunday, Nov. 29, I can’t be in this building,” he said.
“If it was up to me, I’d just go sit in Beaver City and watch the wind blow down the Yukon,” he said, recalling with fondness of his time spent in the rural community. “Watch the swans come play in the spring. Worry about who came in the mail plane that day.”