Alaskan journalist, author and historian Lael Morgan died last week at the age of 86.
Morgan led an unconventional life, telling the stories of others and creating her own.
She came to Alaska from New England with her husband in 1959, said her adopted daughter, Diana Campbell of Fairbanks. Campbell said Ella Morgan wanted to earn money to sail around the world, an adventure she half completed before returning to Alaska and embarking on a journalism career that took her across the state and beyond.
“The Juneau Empire, the News-Miner, Jessen’s Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and then the Tundra Times, which was probably one of his biggest things,” Campbell said.
Morgan’s work at the Tundra Times gave her insight into some of the fundamental struggles of Alaska Natives to protect their way of life.
“She really had a front row seat to land claims,” Campbell said. “The Tundra Times covered land claims. They also covered the Rampart Dam project, as well as the Chariot Project.”
Morgan wrote a book on Inupiaq carver and Tundra Times founder Howard Rock, “Art and Eskimo Power,” as well as many others, including an acclaimed history of gold rush-era prostitution, “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Goldrush”. published by Epicenter Press, a company she co-founded in 1988.
Morgan’s many other activities included freelance photography and writing for such publications as the New York Times and National Geographic, a stint as a private eye in Los Angeles, and retracing Jack London’s travels in the South Pacific.
“She was a nomad in that sense and she wasn’t afraid of adventure,” Campbell said. “She wouldn’t say she was a women’s liberator, but she didn’t think being a woman stopped her from doing anything. She was always working. She never retired.”
Another Morgan project brought attention to the buried history of the African-American soldiers who built the Alaska Highway.
“We had two meetings of Alaska Alcan veterans and they had personal photos,” Morgan told KUAC in a 2017 interview. “We did a museum exhibit and took it everywhere. And then Colin Powell took him to the Pentagon.”
Morgan pushed for history to be taught in Alaskan schools.
Campbell said she met Morgan when she was teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and was initially intimidated by Morgan’s no-nonsense style.
“I was terrified of her,” Campbell said. “She scared the hell out of me.”
But eventually they formed a bond.
“The natives were important to her. Of course, I’m an Alaskan Native myself, and she wanted an Alaskan Native to do well in journalism,” Campbell said.
Campbell said the connection deepened and Morgan, who had no children of her own, informally adopted her.
“She said, ‘I’m going to be your mother.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ Campbell said.
Campbell stressed that Morgan was not just about work.
“She also collected people, weird people, and sometimes she saw things in other people that other people didn’t see,” Campbell said.
A memorial service for Morgan is being planned in Anchorage around Labor Day, but Campbell said Morgan’s ashes will be interred at Fairbanks Birch Hill Cemetery.
“In fact, she’s going to be buried next to Georgia Lee, a woman she learned about through her book ‘Good Time Girls,'” Campbell said. “Georgia Lee was perhaps the most famous fun girl in Fairbanks.”
Lael Morgan’s burial will be followed by a celebration of life event.