Bethel lost a beloved Elder in the days after Thanksgiving. Elias Venes died on November 29, 2019 at the age of 91. For the following week, family, friends, and community members gathered in his home to share stories, grieve, and remember the man who served as father, grandfather, uncle, and friend to so many.
It’s a big family. Venes had 17 children: 12 with his first wife, Ruth, and five stepchildren with his second wife, Bernie. They and their families gather in the upper unit of a triplex, which he built, bringing food and memories.
“Help yourself,” a friend of the family, Minnie Sallison-Fritts, tells guests walking in the door, gesturing to the overflowing plattesr on the table and counters. “There’s various breads, grapes, donuts, two kinds of salmon, chicken.”
The door swings open, allowing bursts of cold air to enter the warm room as visitors come and go. It’s a gathering of the generations, from staggering toddlers, to teenagers playing cards, to Elders resting in soft chairs. There are no phones in sight. Instead, people talk and share stories amid walls covered in Christmas decorations and family photos.
“That’s my dad in this photo,” says Venes’ daughter, Connie Sankwich, pointing to a young boy leaning against a plane. She pulls out a photo album, flipping through images of her siblings as teenagers opening Christmas presents, her mother processing salmon, and pausing at a picture of her father.
“Here’s a picture of him knitting here at the kitchen table,” she says. “He was always handsome. Right up until he left us he was handsome.”
Sankwich thinks that her father’s lifelong good looks had something to do with his ritual of washing his face with snow in the morning. It’s just one of the many memories she cherishes about him.
“He always knitted us socks,” she remembered. “He was an excellent ice skater. He would make an ice rink for us every year, and he would make rocking horses for us out of plywood. He was an avid reader.”
Venes’ life was one of hard work and family. He came of age before electricity and snowmachines, growing up the youngest of four children in Akiak. His dad was a reindeer herder from Norway, and his mom was Alaska Native from the Kuskokwim tundra villages. Elias was only 12 when his dad died, and he took over providing for his mother. Like many of his generation, he only went through the eighth grade. He served in the Merchant Marines during World War II, bringing home wounded troops from the South Pacific. As a young man he worked with his brother, logging at the Nyac mine using dog teams and hand saws. The son of that brother, Joe “Sonny” Venes Jr., said that his uncle Elias could build anything.
“I call him a master of all trades,” Venes Jr. said. “He was a boat builder, sled builder, home builder, cat skin operator. Everything he did, he did well or didn’t do it at all.”
Venes worked for the Federal Aviation Administration for over 30 years and would build things after full days of work. Venes Jr. remembers that his uncle Elias even built a snowmachine using a washing machine engine.
“I call it a contraption. I think he’d probably be lucky to be 10 miles an hour,” Venes Jr. said, laughing.
Venes called the outdoors his church, and he shared many hunting adventures with his close friend, Bob Aloysius.
“I first met him in June 1960, the day I came back from the Army,” Aloysius recalled. “His family did welcome me. I didn’t even know them.”
Aloysius didn’t have a family; Venes shared his, becoming Aloysius’ best man in his wedding and godfather to his daughter. Venes, who was rich with family, shared this wealth throughout his life, becoming a surrogate father, uncle, and grandfather to many in the community. Now, Aloysius says, his friend has returned to the family he’s missed, including his first and second wives.
“He’s up there with Bernie and Ruth fighting over him,” Aloysius said, laughing.
A passion Venes shared with his second wife, Bernie, was music. He played any instrument within reach. There’s a picture of him playing harmonica with his mouth, guitar with his hands, and keyboard with his feet. He and Bernie would often sing together, and his daughter Sankwich says that when she called the priest during his final hours, her dad, even then, was singing.
“As he did every single morning and every night,” Sankwich said. “He went to bed singing, sang himself to sleep, prayed himself to sleep. And in the morning, that’s how I knew dad was up: I’d hear him singing and praying.”
Venes died on Bernie’s birthday, which the family says is not a coincidence. The two were childhood sweethearts in Akiak and reunited after his first wife died. Their ashes will be scattered on a nearby mountain.