History comes full circle for Aunt Phil!

The family of Jacob Marunenko, known to Anchorage as “Russian Jack” holds a painting of their ancestor that hangs in the Wells Fargo Russian Jack branch. From left: Sergei Marunenko, Tanya Malinovskiy, Olga Marunenko and Gregori Marunenko.

A crazy thing recently happened that I must share with you awesome Alaska history fans. One of my weekly TV shows led to a voyage of discovery for a family from California this past week.

Tanya Malinovskiy from Roseville, California, reached out to me after she saw my Story Time with Aunt Phil segment on “Russian Jack,” which aired on Anchorage CBS affiliate KTVA Channel 11 Daybreak show in November 2017. When she learned that our Russian Jack, an Anchorage pioneer who arrived here back when Anchorage was just starting out in 1915 was Jacob Marunenko, she exclaimed, “That’s my great-grandfather!”

She shared with me that her Ukrainian family had lost all contact with Jacob after he left his home country in 1910 to find a better life in America. Tanya explained that the family never talked about him, because at that time if anyone said they had a relative in the United States the entire family would suffer at the hands of the Ukrainian government – they might even be killed.

When she saw my story on YouTube, Click here to watch video she knew she had to come to Anchorage to see what sort of a town would love her great-grandfather so much that it named a beautiful park, elementary school, bank branch, street and apartment building after him.

On Sept. 12, I had the honor of meeting Tanya and her family – 78-year-old father Gregori, brother Sergie and sister Olga – and introducing them to Bruce Merrell, now-retired ZJ Loussac Public Library Alaska reference librarian who has extensively researched Russian Jack’s past. Bruce shared many documents and pieces of their long-lost puzzle about Jack’s life after he left Ukraine.

Bruce and I then led them to Russian Jack Springs Park. A KTVA Channel 11 crew filmed this emotional visit as we all watched Russian Jack’s grandson and great-grandchildren walk around the property that Jacob had once homesteaded. Jacob, who changed his name to Jack Marchin, had earned a living chopping down trees and selling wood and operating a still and selling moonshine on this piece of land that now is a 320-acre park that welcomes Anchorage residents with a golf course, greenhouse, ski trails and meeting chalet.

They also visited a Wells Fargo bank branch named for Russian Jack and held a replica of a painting of their famous relative that proudly hangs on the wall of the bank manager’s office. Two other crowning points of the family’s visit included sharing Russian Jack’s life with third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes at the elementary school that bears his name. After I shared a bit about the early Anchorage that met Jack’s eyes at the turn-of-the-last century, Tanya told the children about Jack’s life in Ukraine and how his descendants immigrated to America in the 1980s and 1990s and how much they love the United States. The children sang their school song for the family, which brought tears to grandson Gregori’s eyes.

We then made our way to Anchorage City Hall, where Mayor Ethan Berkowitz greeted them and visited with the family. He pinned each member of Russian Jack’s family with Anchorage’s official anchor pin. That evening KTVA 11 aired a short news story about the family’s story, which originally was to be a longer clip but Hurricane Florence news overshadowed the news cycle. Click here to watch the news clip

The family left Anchorage with the knowledge that even though Jacob had been lost to them, he had found an entire community that loved him, and following his death in 1973, had perpetuated his memory for future generations.

As a side note, Bruce Merrell shared with me a bit of stunning news. He had been trained as an Alaska reference librarian by my Aunt Phil (Phyllis Downing Carlson) and had taken her job when she retired in the 1980s. As he was cleaning out his/her desk a few years later, he found an index card on which Aunt Phil had written Russian Jack’s real name and his address in California where he had moved in the late 1950s.

That information is what led him to research the life of our “Russian Jack.” Bruce shared his research with me in 2008 so I could write about Jack in the fourth book of my Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series.

So the story of Russian Jack has come full circle for me. My Aunt Phil had a hand in jumpstarting research that gathered missing parts of a puzzle about Jack’s life. And modern-day Aunt Phil’s little TV show helped bring together those puzzle pieces to answer questions for Jack’s family.

My books’ slogan, “Bringing Alaska’s history alive,” has even more meaning for me now!

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