Perhaps it was something about Stetson Chapel.
When Robert Sewell, Sr. and Rowene Pionke were married there (October 30, 1948) they hoped the children they planned to have would fulfill their own dreams of graduating from Kalamazoo College.
Dreams come true. Robert Jr. and his younger brother Richard graduated from K. They also discovered careers in Alaska, where their parents eventually moved—a second dream-come-true for their fisherman father.
Robert Sr. retired in the 1980s, left Kalamazoo to visit Rich in Anchorage (and fish for anything with fins) and never looked back. The boys’ mother also embraced the northern lifestyle and found work there. The two now are buried at Ft. Richardson, after a number of happy years in Alaska near their sons.
Richard Sewell ’78
“I had wanted a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, without a lot of religious affiliation, in a small urban area,” Rich says. “I’d taken tennis lessons and played on the Stowe Stadium courts from the time I was six years old, and Robert, who is two years older than I, was enrolled at K.”
Rich credits K for preparing him to explore options, seize opportunities, and adapt to circumstances that might otherwise have defeated him.
He appreciated the variety of opportunities at K. “I took hockey ice skating at WMU through a contract they had with K,” he says.
“I worked with hand ringing and we got involved in fund raising to buy the tower bells for Stetson Chapel,” he adds, recalling his parents’ ties to the place they were married.
And Rich found the professors and classes special.
“Professor [Lawrence] Barrett taught freshman English and helped me learn to write, and he encouraged me to say what I was thinking,” Rich says. “It was near the end of Dr. Barrett’s career but he was still enthused about helping freshmen.”
During summers Rich worked at the Eckrich meat packing company.
“I was paid well,” he recalls. “With that and my scholarships and grants, I was able to pay my own way. I realize students today can hardly do that.”
After graduation Rich was hired at the South Central Michigan Regional Planning Commission in Kalamazoo. In July 1981, when his job was eliminated because of funding cuts, Rich left for Alaska. He figured he’d stay a few years and then return to Michigan or explore elsewhere. Instead, the economics major sunk his roots in Alaska.
He was hired as regional economist for the department of planning in Anchorage, where in late 1984 he predicted an economic crash.
“I’d been a foreign exchange student from Plainwell High School to Santiago, Chile, in 1973, and I’d seen things go bad there,” Rich says.
“City officials wanted me to revise my forecast. When I refused, I was out of a job.
“In 1987 there was a major economic downturn, forerunner of the national housing crash when 50 percent of Alaskan housing value was lost,” Rich recalls. His predictions had come true, though they cost him his job, but his K experiences had prepared him for change.
After losing the Anchorage position Rich reoriented himself by driving back roads through Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and other European countries.
“At K I had learned to be adaptable to trying different things and figuring things out,” he said. “Travel gave me time to think and reminded me I was supposed to be always learning new things,” he said. “I visited museums, reread Homer’s Odyssey and followed the route the hero took. And I learned there was an opportunity for seafood exports in Europe.”
Rich returned to Alaska, took a French course at the University of Alaska, and started a seafood company that processed and exported salmon to Europe, Asia, and Hawaii.
When the Valdez oil spill occurred, salmon took a hit. So Rich, who had done research about blue crabs during one of his off-campus experiences at K, reviewed what he had learned and obtained a grant through the Alaska Technology System to learn about the live king crab market. He switched to shipping king crab and returned to school for marketing and management classes. That led to the offer of a fellowship in the business school, and he enrolled in a master’s program.
“That proved to be a creative way to move forward with my business and do something productive,” Rich said.
When Alaska law declared that only six companies could buy crab in the Bering Sea, Rich found himself again out of business. He went to work for the Alaska Department of Transportation (2004) where he continues to be employed.
His first assignment was a posting at the isolated borough of Bethel.
“I was a foreigner there,” Rich said. “Some people still speak only Yupik. I needed a translator, so I took a class at the University and learned the Eskimo language.”
Rich has worked for government agencies, owned and operated his own seafood companies, and ridden the ups-and-downs of a volatile economy, oil spills, and unpredictable government regulations. The survival skills he needed, he says, he learned at K.
About 10 years ago Rich met Ellen Provost, a physician who is now director of epidemiology for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.
“Now I have a stepdaughter, Rachel, and a baby granddaughter, Addison,” Rich says.
“Many people come and go to and from Alaska. To avoid that phenomenon, my solution was to encourage my family to move here.”
Robert Sewell ’75
Rich’s older brother Robert was a student at K when Rich enrolled.
After his first year at K he volunteered at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland) as a volunteer for phase I safety studies of new medicines.
When he returned to the College, he did an independent study internship at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, working as a research technician in a study of aggressive behavior. As a result of that experience he became increasingly intrigued by behavior analysis.
Robert eventually transferred to Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree (major in psychology and a minor in chemistry). He continued his education at WMU with a master’s degree (1982) and doctorate (1985), each with an emphasis on behavior analysis.
He visited Rich in Alaska in 1983; and two years later accepted a position as a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Like his brother he planned to stay only a few years, but also like his brother he has remained in the “last frontier” for more than 30 years.
Today Robert manages Alaska’s SHARP program, an effort he conceived and initiated in 2007. The State agency, a division of Alaska’s Health and Social Services, provides direct financial incentives for health professionals.
“We need to encourage people to come to Alaska and stay,” Robert said.
Robert has stayed. “Michigan was my home,” he said, “but I love the magnificent scenery, the people, and the native culture here.” He and his wife Olga and his 17-year old son, Luke, live on Douglas Island near Juneau. His stepdaughter, Lauren, is a registered nurse who works in oncology in Portland, Oregon.
The brothers remember the occasion when they were lab partners during a biology class at K. In a sense, says Rich, he and Robert continue to collaborate. Both now are on the Board of Directors for the Alaska State Employees Association. And their adopted home is now, simply, home. Their forbears are buried here.