Remembering Terrence Cole by Doug Pope


Terrence Cole died on December 12, 2020. He was 67. A lover of family, friends and Alaskan history, he served thirty years as a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. In May of 2018, Dan Branch and I encountered Terrence at the North Words Writer’s Symposium in Skagway. By then, he had won every major teaching award offered by the students and the faculty, and published five books. He kept all this under his hat. He was just another guy wearing a hand-written name-tag.

By the first day of the symposium, forty writers had stumbled off an Alaskan Marine ferry or small commercial plane and onto the streets of Skagway. We all carried writing gear and more than a little hope. The first night we were offered a free tour of the old Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum. I’d been to North Words before, and knew the saloon would be our evening venue. The next morning, Dan and I walked down Broadway Street to the historic Arctic Brotherhood Hall, just a few blocks from the wharf where cruise ships unloaded, and a block from the Red Onion. We had to make our way past a tourist information center facing Broadway where cruise tourists crowd in and out. Squeezing between them, we powered down a dark hallway and into a large room where everyone in the symposium attends the sessions.

Each morning, while other participants chatted over coffee and donuts before the first session started, Terrence slipped into a seat lining the western wall that rested on a six-inch high platform. Some folks sat in that row for the attention. Terrence only wanted a better view. He’d lean forward in his chair, giving total attention to the presenters, and then swing around to look intently at someone asking a question. During participant readings at the Presbyterian Church, he again leaned forward in one of the pews to listen. On breaks, he’d spend his energy taking a participant aside to encourage his or her writing, or giving quiet praise for something they said or shared.

One sunny day, Terrence followed Dan and me across a pedestrian bridge over the Skagway River to a bench on the opposite side. We all carried good take-away sandwiches. The river grumbled by, it’s surface reflecting the sun on our faces. The still greening willows and alders gave us welcome shade. While eating, Terrence told us about his cancer. I had just completed four weeks of immunotherapy treatment in Seattle for a rare bone marrow cancer, and Dan was a cancer survivor. We knew how to listen.

His face calm, Terrence quietly said his stomach cancer was at stage four, there was already a port installed in his body for the chemo, and he was leaving for New York in a few days to receive another treatment. He said he didn’t expect to live long, and he worried most about his daughter, who was not yet a teenager.

It rattled Dan and me like a bomb. After a moment of quiet, the conversation turned. We acknowledged that we felt blessed we had lived so long before cancer came into our lives. Words caught in our throats, faces wrinkled, and tears flowed with stories about waiting for treatment and observing boys and girls not yet teenagers with their heads shaved. We all sat silent again, looking at the river until it was time to go back to the AB Hall. Seagulls bickered while we re-crossed the bridge, and I wondered if they’d heard our conversation.

(Terrence with writers Ernestine Hayes and Jonathan Evison)

Dan and I joined Terrence again at North Words in 2019. This time he was a professor emeritus and on the faculty. North Words listed his many accomplishments, including that he had appeared on every media outlet worth appearing on, but what grabbed us was the tongue in cheek proclamation that “he has not achieved his dream of appearing on an episode of “Cops” or “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” One hallmark of North Words is that the topics can generate some passions. 2019 was no different with rousing discussions of cultural misappropriation and whether the hero’s journey was passé. When Terrence talked, it was often to challenge or dissect a conventional wisdom circulating the room, and he stirred the emotional pot with targeted questions. In the evenings, at the Red Onion, he told stories that often left everyone laughing. But, even though his enthusiasm was ever present, his energy lagged at times, and on the last day, typically a few hours of hiking into a glacier off the White Pass Railroad, Terrence stayed behind so he could be fully present for the evening banquet.

Covid shut down Skagway in 2020. Instead of physical meetings and rousing discussions at North Words, we became midget images participating via Zoom. More poignant was that Terrence was absent. He entered hospice in mid-October. His friends were asked to limit communications to letters. Many did, including me. I sent him a card with a pressed flower and told him I wished I could take his journey with him. Unbeknownst to most of us, he apparently was something of a wonder boy in hospice for weeks, taking long walks, albeit with assistance, every day. The day after he died I received a postcard penned by him: “Though we only met a few years ago, I feel like I have known you all my life. You are a good friend and great raconteur. Toast me next time you are in the Red Onion.” His message from the grave haunts me.

In a year or two, Skagway will reopen. Cruise ship tourists will crowd the streets again and ride the White Pass. In late May, on the first night of North Words, cancer permitting, Dan and I will go to the Red Onion with other participants, ask the local band to take a little break, and for everyone to raise a glass to the memory of Terrence Cole.

Terrence Cole enriched the time Doug Pope and Dan Branch had at the North Words Writer’s Symposium. He did the same for the other participants at that Skagway conference each year that he attended.

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