Alaska just lost one of its heroes when Father Michael Oleksa passed away last week. It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that he touched thousands of lives and made Alaska a better place.
Father Michael grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania and came to Alaska fresh out of seminary school. Like many Russian Orthodox priests before him, he started by listening to the elders in his community, Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. As he got to know his flock and their culture, he learned as much as he gave to them. That led to service in dozens of villages and towns across the state, and an interest in multicultural communication.
Not only did he serve in the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Michael taught classes and workshops all over Alaska and beyond. (The photo here is from a Diversity Conference in Oregon in 2014.) I was lucky enough to attend a multicultural communication workshop at a high school where I was teaching. That inspired me and a few others to found the PRC, Prejudice Reduction Coalition, where we trained students to lead workshops for their peers. We reached hundreds of teens in the few years I co-led the program. Similar groups formed in many districts around the state.
I also took a class about Alaska's multicultural history for teachers from Father Michael. My daughter took a similar class from him at Alaska Pacific University. One of my fondest memories was attending a class session with her and thanking Father Michael for all he'd done for education in Alaska.
Father Michael Oleksa was also a scholar and historian. He wrote several excellent books about Alaska history and cultures, often about the Russian Orthodox church, including Orthodox Alaska, one of my go-to reference books. He also recorded several videos and audio recordings on these topics. You can see these and more on his website at https://fatheroleksa.org/index-2.html
How was he able to make such a difference in our world? He was a humble, gracious, generous man. He listened to people with a full heart and told wonderful stories to bring us together. We are all better off for his presence in the world. And I hope we all honor Father Michael's memory by using his example, listening to each other and working together to build connections.