By Joanne Hill
It might seem like a strange journey from the Bering Strait in Alaska to a seniors meeting in Patrick County, but to Margaret and Alan Koegler, it just seems to be part of their life.
The musicians, who recently performed for the Patrick County senior meeting, taught for 15 years in an Alaskan village before returning to their home in Patrick Springs.
It began about 20 years ago. Margaret wanted to continue her education in Education Administration at Virginia Tech and Alan wanted a job in the area. He was hired by Martinsville City Public Schools and later by Floyd County Schools, while she commuted to Blacksburg.
When Margaret finished her program at Tech, they were invited by friends to visit Alaska and off they went. While they were in Alaska, a job fair was being held to recruit educators. The couple had met a few educators who told them about the experiences of teaching in Alaska. They decided if they found a job, they would stay.
They were offered jobs in the Anchorage School District, but having missionary spirits they wanted to work in a village school. During the interview process, the school district discovered that Margaret had studied a new educational program called “Success for All.” She was interviewed further and hired on the spot as the principal of the largest school in the district, which had about 250 students.
All of the schools were K-12 and were located in the villages so the children could walk to school. There were 15 schools spread over thousands of miles. Schools never closed for snow, but if polar bears were around eating whale carcasses on a nearby beach, parents were asked to walk with their child to school.
The Koeglers said that most of the villages were located on the beaches and the whale culture was prominent. Once the bow/lead whales came on shore during migration, the villagers cut them into usable chunks and delivered the product to all the village residents using four-wheelers or snow-mobiles. The Koeglers also received lots of fish to eat from the villagers.
Interestingly, all of the teachers in the schools were from the lower 48 states, but all the other employees (aids, cooks, and maintenance) were natives. The public schools were the largest employers in the area. Margaret and Alan said they had to learn to shop for groceries for 6-months at a time because everything had to be shipped or flown in to them. Although their salaries were reasonable, the cost of living was much higher because certain items were not readily available. Housing for teachers was built by the school district and mostly from drift wood.
Alan said it was probably true that he grew up in the hippie culture. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to teach or be a musician. He played music all through college but got his master’s degree in Special Education with the intent of possibly being a school psychologist. The school division placed Alan under the supervision of Margaret to teach special education.
They became more than teaching buddies and now have been married for 26 years. After their 15-year career in Alaska and a change in curriculum, they decided to return to their home in Patrick County.
They remember well how they happened to buy their home. They were driving around looking for a place where he could find a job and she could commute to college when they stopped for a meal at the Virginian Restaurant, which was on Blue Ridge Street in Stuart where the Adult Education Center currently is located. Charles Baughn, a realtor who is now deceased, approached them and when they told him what they were looking for, he told them he had a house to show them. It became a done deal and they believe to this day that God directed that leg of their life’s journey.
Since their return home, they have been active members at Patrick Springs Pentecostal Holiness Church and are also known as the Three Sixteen Duet, performing gospel music at many venues. Alan also plays bass with the Senior Melodies.
As one looks closely at his instrument, it is easy to notice a specialness about it. It was hand crafted by Alan and the paint job was done by Eric Sheppard at his car body shop. Alan said he made at least 18 of these six string electric guitars as a way to stay busy during those long dark nights in Alaska.
The Koeglers have five children, 10 grandchildren and one on the way. They perform on a regular basis for the senior’s meeting, which is held at the Rotary Building in Stuart, every second Thursday of the month at 11 a.m.
The group for seniors began in 2009 by a handful of hard working and caring women with the Patrick County Recreation Department. In addition to the meetings, the group sponsors other activities such as trips, and serves as a gathering place for many seniors throughout the area. It operates at no cost to the county, existing on donations and the charges for trips, which are paid by participants.
(Hill is a retired educator and contributor to The Enterprise.)