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Guest Post: Early Days of the Anchorage, Alaska Branch

By: John M. Tippets - September 22, 2009

John M. Tippets is a proud Alaskan, although he and his family now call Texas home. Following his mission to Eastern Canada, John earned his B.S. and MBA degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles. He followed his father into aviation, and has recently retired from a long career in that industry. Last year he published his parents’ story as Hearts of Courage, which, while chiefly about his father’s incredible tale of survival in the Alaskan wilderness, also includes material on the formation of the first branch of the church in Alaska. He shares that story and pictures from the family photo album with Keepa readers today:

Joseph and Alta Mahoney Tippets had arrived in the northern frontier of Alaska in 1940 with great excitement. After a few months assigned to Yakutat, a small fishing village along the coast, Joe was transferred to the main Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) office in Anchorage.

Mormon missionaries Elder Clifton Bryner Thomas (1919-2005) and Elder Lester Franklin Hewlett (1921-1983) were already working in the area and were making good progress. There were a few LDS families who had settled nearby in addition to several soldiers from Ft. Richardson, the local Army post. When Elmendorf Army Air Base opened in the fall of 1940, more LDS servicemen arrived and plans began for a branch to be established in Anchorage.

In January 1941, Joe and Alta welcomed their new baby boy, John Mahoney Tippets, and decided they needed a home of their own. With help from friends and the elders, a small frame house on I Street, between Eleventh and Twelfth, was soon finished. A few months later, the first local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally organized and Joseph Tippets was called as the Anchorage Branch President. The little house on I Street became a popular gathering place for social events and occasional Sunday dinners.

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According to Elder Hewlett, “After the house was completed, we would hold meetings with investigators there. … They invited everyone for dinner. … We would sit on orange and apple crates and food would be passed out buffet style. He (Joseph) would tell everyone how wonderful it was to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He just fellowshipped people right into the church.” And from the journals of Elder Thomas, “Brother Tippets is a capable and talented man” and on Sunday, May 25, 1941, “Elder Hewlett and I participated in organizing the Anchorage Branch, with Brother Tippets as Branch President and with H.O. Johnson and Wells Bowen as counselors.” In June, Elder Thomas described a missionary conference at the Tippets’ home, “The spirit of the Lord was in rich abundance and many righteous tears were shed.”

The following December, 1942, Joe was working in Nome, 580 miles north of Anchorage when he received an urgent message from his wife. His elderly mother down in Utah was gravely ill and not expected to recover. His sisters were asking, “Could he come? Could he come soon?” Not an easy question to answer from Nome, Alaska, in the middle of a war, but he would try. A few days later, he was on a flight to Seattle and then on to Ogden, where his mother was in the hospital. He was grateful he had made it home in time.

Days later, before leaving on his return trip, Joe was able to visit with several Church leaders in Salt Lake City who were interested in the progress of the church in Alaska. He also met with some of the families of the young solders in his branch and wrote to Alta, “Sweetheart, all the mothers think it is just wonderful the way you are looking out for their boys and they express their thanks! I miss you and love you and thank God for having you as my wife. Godspeed our quick reunion and I hope I beat this letter to you!”

Joe and Alta could not have foreseen the challenges they were about to face or how many desperate days would go by before they would be together again.

What followed was a plane crash and a 29-day struggle by Joseph Tippets not only for his own survival in a remote Alaskan wilderness but also to bring help to his seriously injured co-passengers. That story has been told briefly here at Keepa as Alaskan Odyssey, and in much more detail in our guest author’s book Hearts of Courage (2008), available from Deseret Book and other LDS retailers, as well as from Amazon.com.

Note that the last picture above shows Joe and Alta after Joe’s rescue. They are holding scriptures and Unto the Hills, a compilation of messages given with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts – books that Joe carried with him during his weeks in the wilderness.



48 Comments

  1. Ardis,
    Thanks for posting this piece about the Anchorage Branch and about my parents. Although we left Alaska in 1947 the experiences and friendships of those years were central in the lives of Joseph and Alta.
    For more on the history of the Church in Anchorage and in all of Alaska, I recommend the book “A Gathering of the Saints in Alaska”.
    John Tippets (johntippets [at] yahoo [dot] com)

    [John, I edited your address slightly so that you wouldn't fall victim to the spambots. -- AEP]

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 7:35 am

  2. Thanks. I loved this:

    “He (Joseph) would tell everyone how wonderful it was to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He just fellowshipped people right into the church.”

    Comment by Hunter — September 22, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  3. From time to time when the subject of fellowshipping comes up at church or in blog discussions, people will explain that their homes are not large enough or fancy enough to host gatherings. Your parents’ experience certainly proves that the size of the house is an irrelevant factor. Thank you for the post about your parents. They sound like amazing people.

    Comment by Researcher — September 22, 2009 @ 9:41 am

  4. A great post–and wonderful photographs.

    And that’s one fine hat your mother was wearing, sir! It’s one more argument in favor of bringing hats back into fashion.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 22, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  5. My mother was a beautful woman. I as young teen I was very proud of that.
    But if you read of her part in the ’43 Hearts of Courage story you will see she was also both strong and much in tune with her Father -in Heaven.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 11:45 am

  6. Eek — I apologize for misspelling your name in the post, John! I hope I have it fixed everywhere now.

    And it wasn’t just your mother’s hats that were gorgeous. I love ’40s fashions and hairstyles — these pictures illustrate why.

    John, do I understand that you also give lectures or presentations about your parents’ experiences, especially your dad’s survival of the plane crash?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 22, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  7. Ardis,
    Yes I have a Powerpoint presentation of the Hearts of Courage story and frequently do it for interested audiences (Aviation groups, those who enjoy Alaska history, LDS Firesides, etc.). Dad speculated that perhaps one reason his life was preserved was just so he could tell of his experience; that the faith and courage of others might be increased as they deal with adversity and challenges. And, here 66 years later I’m pleased to be able to continue to tell his (and Mother’s)story. John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  8. I first came across the story of his father in “LDS Adventure Stories” compiled by Preston Nibley. I’ll have to buy the “long version” now that I know it exists.

    As a personal aside, my father-in-law and his family moved to Anchorage in 1954 (and still live in the area) so I have the book John mentioned in his first comment. Lots of great stories in there.

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  9. This is great. I have in-laws and friends from Alaska and will be forwarding this to them right away.

    John, are you able to identify many of the people in the group photograph?

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 22, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  10. Clark, You will enjoy “Hearts of Courage”. It has much more of the story than the 1943 Improvement Era account (reprinted in “LDS Adventure Stories”). It also has lots of pictures, maps and other supporting detail. John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  11. John:
    I enjoyed this post very much. I personally find the beginnings of the Church in a particular area very interesting. It’s also incredible to see how much the Church has grown in Alaska–i.e. there is a temple there and a thriving LDS population. And it hasn’t really been that long since the Church was organized there.

    We have a retired couple in our branch who taught school in Alaska for 30 years. I’ll have to show them this.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 22, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

  12. J.Stapley,
    I know some in the pictures. In the small group picture the couple to the right of my mother (with me) is Lucille and Harold Johnson. In the larger group picture at the far back center is Wells Bowen, the Elders on the back right are Lester Hewlett and Clifton Thomas….the couple on the right in front of my Dad are Cora and JL McCarrey. I think I know some of the others but any help will be appreciated.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  13. John, this makes for fascinating reading about a part of the world and Church that I know little about. It’s always wonderful to read the experiences of pioneers of all eras, and your parents were certainly that, “blazing trails along the way”. Keep up the great work of sharing their story!

    Comment by Alison — September 22, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  14. Steve,
    Almost 50 years ago our Canadian Mission President (Thomas Monson) assigned an Elder Lawrence Rock and myself to open Brampton, Ontario to missionary work….as I recall we found one member there as we started a Sunday School. Today Brampton has a Stake Center, a beautiful Temple and….the mission home. Similarly the area where Dad was the Anchorage Branch President,I think now has five Stakes, a Temple and the Anchorage, Ak. Mission.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  15. John, your father sounds like quite a guy. I read the Alaskan Odyssey link, and that’s absolutely incredible. Some people seem to have “bigger” spirits than others, and your dad certainly sounds like one of those.

    Comment by Martin — September 22, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  16. Thanks very much for the insights and the photos. we all have much to learn from the dedication of those who went before in times far tougher than our own.

    Comment by anne — September 22, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  17. Great post — we’ve got some good friends in the ward (Parker, CO) with ties to Anchorage — I’ll pass this along to them. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — September 22, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  18. My wifes aunt lives in Anchorage area and like so many other things there are nuggets in every location across the world where the church is. I think it is wonderful to see such things remembered.

    Thanks John, I really appreciate it.

    Comment by JonW — September 22, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  19. One of the blessings of the book, the BYU TV LDS Lives production of the story and of presentations, etc. has been the many wonderful new friends, reconnections and recollections. The conversations (like this blog) have been wonderful….for example:
    Recently in Boise I met a 96 year old who worked with Dad on Alaska Airport equipment installations in the early ’40s. He (Bill Lofholm) was with Morrison Knudsen Construction Co. and Dad was the CAA rep on the projects. Bill was also scheduled to be on the flight with Dad and others that day in Jan. ’43 but he was delayed in getting to Seattle. As he drove by Boeing Field, he looked in the hanger and saw the plane was gone…..Always grateful since that he missed the flight.

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  20. Thanks so much for your post. The stories of saints around the world establishing the church in the 20th century are just as important as the stories we hear so often about the 19th century saints. We need to pay more attention to the stories of 20th and 21st century pioneers. I enjoyed the graphic novel about Wilford Woodruf’s first mission that was recently published on Keepa. Your Dad’s work in Alaska showed just as much faith and dedication to the Gospel as Wilford Woodruff showed on his first mission.

    Comment by John Willis — September 22, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  21. I think there’s always someplace in the world where you can be LDS pioneers. I remember Amira encouraging people to move to foreign branches (such as Kyrgyzstan) to build up the kingdom and support the remote saints.j

    Comment by Bookslinger — September 22, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  22. I am always a little awestruck by how a member, with or without their family, can move into an area and successfully plant the seed fo the Restored Gospel among their neighbors in their new community. Certainly, it takes warm and generous hearts such as those of Brother and Sister Tippets to reach out to total strangers and through friendship and hospitality show them what peace and happiness the Gospel can bring into the lives to all of those who embrace it. Had they been born during the 19th century pioneer era, I’m certain Brother Brigham would have sent them off as leaders of a colonizing mission. The Church needs “ten thousand times ten thousand” like them today. As we approach the last of the last days, the work must be accelerated so that all who desire can have the opportunity to hear and embrace the fulness of the Gospel. Brother Tippett’s raw courage in the wilderness reminds me of Brother Joseph’s comment about his optimism. I can’t recall his exact words, (Ardis would know, though), but it was something to the effect of the Prophet could be thrown into the darkest hole with all of the Rocky Mountains piled on top of him he would just re-double his efforts and was certain that he would come out on top.
    I enjoyed this bit of 20th century history and the clothing, hair styles and hats are familiar to me from my childhood. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of twentieth century pioneer Saints!

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 22, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  23. John Willis,
    After leaving Alaska the family moved to the Washington DC area where Dad was the much loved “Bishop Joe” of the Capitol Ward (1949-1953). The boundaries of that ward included NE and SE Washington and neighboring Maryland to and including Annapolis (with the US Naval Aacademy).
    Some years later Dad served in the Washington DC Stake Presidency with Milan Smith and Bob Barker.
    After the Alaska crash and his survival, Dad truely served “God and Country” to the fullest extent humanly possible.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

  24. Wow! I take a nap and come back to find that a lengthy conversation has been raging. Thanks for showing your welcome to a guest poster, everybody. And thanks, John, for responding.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 22, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  25. Wow, John, what an incredible heritage you have! Both your mother and (especially) your father were larger than life and serve as an inspiration to us all. I have come to the conclusion that I probably won’t ever do any such brave and noble thing in this life. But I am delighted to be the biggest fan of the incredibly charismatic saints of all eras.

    Comment by ellen — September 22, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  26. John, after reading this post about your parents, I had to go back and reread the story of your father’s crash. It amazed me all over again to see what he went through at that time.

    I am also impressed with their story about furthering the church in Alaska. Some people really do “collect people,” and when they do, they are able to teach the Gospel to them. You have a great heritage.

    Comment by Maurine — September 22, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

  27. Ellen,
    You are right in your assessment…. Dad, in 1967 received a BYU Honorary Doctorate Degree for his exceptional life of public service.
    At his funeral in 1968, the then acting admistrator of the FAA told of a conversation with grizzled prospector who described Joe Tippets as “the finest man that was ever in Alaska”.
    I think given an opportunity, Dad would have said the prospector had a too small sample. However, many others who knew and loved Joe Tippets might say that the prospector was right.
    My brother David said of Dad ” I worked for the U.S.Government for 35 years, never knowing anyone who engendered the love, admiration and respect that he did. He was truly a gifted and talented leader.”

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  28. John,
    I enjoyed the story about your father’s plane crash. This article reinforces the impression I received from that article – some people do manage to live on a higher level and seem to be here to provide an example and direction to the rest of us. I’m grateful for people such as your father!

    Comment by S. Taylor — September 22, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  29. Great background on your Dad as pioneer, John. I remembered the other post about his plane crash adventure, but I went back and reread it tonight.

    This is what I love about Keepa. There are so many extraordinary stories about ordinary saints doing extraordinary things. I really enjoy these posts.

    Comment by kevinf — September 22, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  30. S. Taylor,
    Appendix A of “Hearts of Courage” (pp.121-124) is a letter that Dad wrote to the family of Susan Batzer (the young lady who died on the second day). That letter tells a great deal about the kind of person Dad was, even at the young age of 29.
    If you have the book I encourage you to read that letter.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  31. Kevin,
    In the LDS Church, as for all peoples the World over, stories of ancestors are critcal elements of the culture. They reinforce who we are, binding us and inspiring us. Those stories are passed over the generations, told or sung at the campfire, commemerated in art and/or preserved in the written word. Keepa is a very new technology of that centuries old tradition.

    The scriptural instruction that has given me impetus to write of my parents is in Joel 1: 2-3…. “Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.”
    We all need to be recording those Keepa type stories.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 22, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  32. We all need to be recording those Keepa type stories.

    Awwwww! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 22, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

  33. John,

    Indeed. I’ve been researching family history to find out about my ancestors, and right now am working on the story of my great-grandparents who were part of the 1873 “failed” mission to colonize the Little Colorado in Arizona. It is turning out to be fascinating stuff.

    Mostly, I want to know when I meet these people in the hereafter, something about their lives and what they did. Sometimes it is extraordinary, like your Dad, but often it is just plain hard work and enduring to the end, which can be the best lesson for us all.

    Comment by kevinf — September 22, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

  34. John, terrific story. Adding to the excitement for me is reading the book and commenting on this Blog while sitting in a hotel in Anchorage! The flight in was spectacular and brings all that I read in your book to life!! Thanks for all you do for all of us in your family.

    Comment by Joe Trammel — September 24, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  35. Joe,
    Enjoy Alaska! Doing my parents histories, with the book and as I do the presentations of the “Hearts of Courage” story, it has seemed to totally close the 40 year gap since they left this mortal existence. It is a true Malachi 4:6 experience.
    I will be looking for you at the fireside Sunday evening.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 24, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  36. I read this book and loved it. I wrote a review about it on my blog:

    http://www.fromwhereisitblog.com/2009/08/hearts-of-courage-story-of-local-ogden.html

    Comment by BenJoe — September 24, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  37. I’ve also read this book. It is amazing. You can find my review at http://thebookconnectionccm.blogspot.com/2009/08/hearts-of-courage-by-john-tippets-book.html

    I’m so glad that John contacted me and asked me to review “Hearts of Courage”. I have never read a more inspiring story.

    Cheryl

    Comment by Cheryl Malandrinos — September 25, 2009 @ 7:03 am

  38. One thing I think Cheryl picked up on in her review was Dad’s humility. In telling his story he always gave credit to others….to Gillam for his courage and skill, to Susan Batzer for her good nature and bravery, to Sandy Cutting for his woodsmanship, to the USCG for their services, to the MK company for generosity with their resouces, to Alta for her strength, to Alta, members of the Anchorage Branch and all others who prayed for them, to the people of Ketchikan for their searching and for the care provided after the rescue, and to his Father-in-Heaven. John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 25, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  39. John,

    I first heard the story of your father’s when I was young (I must have been 7 or 8). I was tagging along at a youth fireside. The speaker was David Tippets, our bishop at the time. Later as a priest, I arranged for him to give a similar fireside to a different generation of youth. It is a story that has always stood out to me.

    Your nephew Matt has one of my “church” friends growing up in Maryland. He is one of my favorite people, though I have not been in touch in a long time.

    Thanks for sharing more of your father’s story.

    Comment by Chris H — September 25, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  40. That should read: “the story of your father’s crash”

    Comment by Chris H — September 25, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  41. It was my pleasure to read and review “Hearts of Courage,” John Tippet’s account of his parents’ unfailing courage during Joseph’s survival ordeal. It is the stuff of movies–real heroes who put others before self, faith in God that deepens under adversity, and unwavering family devotion–three themes sorely needed and sadly scarce in our day. “Hearts of Courage’ is a story families would do well to read together.

    http://laurielclewis.blogspot.com/2009/07/book-review.html

    Comment by Laurie Lewis — September 27, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  42. I am truly enjoying the writing of my parents’ life histories. It is closing the gap of the 40 years since they have been gone from this mortal existence and it is allowing their children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren to know them.
    Those experiences of Joseph and Alta in Alaska, with the their little Branch of the Church were central in their lives. Hearts of Courage captures those times.
    This whole project is a wonderful calling, I am sure very much directed by Joseph and Alta.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — September 28, 2009 @ 8:30 am

  43. I really meant to comment on this when it was posted, but I’ve been fighting some nasty cold, which has really diminished my reading of anything except the posting of mean comments at Mormon Mentality.

    I found this post fascinating, not only because I’m pretty sure the author lives in my stake, but because my brother married into a family who has lived in Anchorage for a couple of generations (his FIL was recently a stake president). I’m very partial to the “pioneer stories” of other places.

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by queuno — September 29, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

  44. My wife Bonnie and I are in the Colleyville, Tx. Stake.
    Your comment reminds me to write something about one of the earliest LDS families in Anchorage, that of Willard and Edna Sainsbury with their daughters Beverly and Donna (and Patricia born in Anchorage in 1941). The family arrived in Alaska in 1938 with no job, the two girls and $20. But Willard hustled, found sporatic work and then a better job on the McKinley Park Hotel. Subsequently he did carpentry at Fort Richardson and at Elmendorf Airfield.
    Willard built his family a small home(24’x30′) close by the Tippets house (he likely also helped with the building of ours).
    The two girls were early LDS baptisms in Lake Spenard. Before the branch, the family and one or two others would hold a Sunday School with someone giving a talk, then they would sing a hymn and have a lesson from the Bible. After the branch was formed Church meetings and activities would be held in their home as they were in ours. The Sainsbury family left Alaska in 1943.
    John

    Comment by John Tippets — October 1, 2009 @ 5:23 am

  45. The Sainsbury house has been added onto and is still standing in Anchorage today.

    Comment by John Tippets — October 1, 2009 @ 5:26 am

  46. I had an email yesterday from one of the Sainsbury girls (Donna Webbe), who was 8 or 10 in 1943 when Dad was lost.
    “I remember this as if it were yesterday. Our little branch of the Church in Anchorage was totally TRAUMATIZED as this miracle took a month to unfold.
    Thanks for the memories, John. God Keeps Blessing!! Donna”

    The BYU TV production of ‘Hearts of Courage’ (The story of Joseph and Alta Tippets)for their LDS Lives series, will air again the evening of 11/16 (and three other times over that next week). John Tippets

    Comment by John Tippets — November 8, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  47. Almost exactly to this date, Dad left Anchorage headed to Ogden to see his dying Mother over the 1942 Christmas season. While in Utah he also visited with my Mother’s family in Heber, made contact and visited with the families of many of the LDS Servicemen in the Anchorage Branch and visited with several General Authorites (who were very much interested in the progress of the Church in Alaska and of the welfare of the Saints there).
    It was on his return from this trip that his plane crashed and he was lost for a Month in the mountains of SE Alaska (the Hearts of Courage story). The prayers of many were answered, Dad survived, continued as the Anchorage Branch President until 1947, and had a life of great service to his Father-in-Heaven and to his Country.

    Comment by John Tippets — December 19, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  48. I was in Salt Lake City this past friday and saturday and had two very wonderful “Anchorage” related experiences.
    1) I was interviewed on friday about “Hearts of Courage” by Carole Mikita for her KSL Radio program “People of Faith”. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about my Dad and Mother, their faith and their uniquely, Alaska and LDS, survival story of Joseph (Dad and three others survived an airplane crash in the mountain wilderness about 30 miles SE of Ketchikan). Carole’s interview aired today and I was very pleased. Then on saturday,
    2) I had a very special two hours with Lucile Johnson (now 90 but still extremely sharp). Her husband was Dad’s first counselor in the Anchorage Branch Presidency. She shared memories of my parents (she was a new bride at the time and was especially close to my Mother). She talked about her Baptism (early ’41, I think) in a very cold (Very Cold) Lake Spenard. She also described how the whole branch was praying for Dad, in that January ’43 that he was lost, and how strong Alta (mother) was and how firm her conviction was that Dad was still alive and would be found. John

    Comment by John Tippets — January 10, 2010 @ 8:00 pm