Last month, long-time Bethel educator, artist, and community organizer Reyne Athanas retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus. Next month, she will be inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall Of Fame. It’s a good time to look back on everything Athanas has done for the community, after which you may be asking, “What hasn’t she done?”
Reyne Athanas first arrived in Bethel in 1973 to teach art at the Kilbuck School, and she quickly fell in love.
“I fell in love with Bethel, and mostly I fell in love with the people because it was, and still is, a very tight knit community,” Athanas said.
Perhaps because of her love for Bethel’s people, she became a part of efforts to create groups and places for people to go.
One of her favorites is Saturday Market, a bazaar for local artisans. She says that the idea came from watching artists struggling to sell their work.
“I mean, they’d go to the hospital, or go to office buildings, and be trying to peddle these beautiful pieces of artwork to people when really they needed a steady, safe, warm place to sell them and get paid what they should,” Athanas said.
Long-time friend Judy Wasierski says that Saturday Market is just one of the reasons she nominated Athanas for the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. She almost runs out of breath trying to name everything Athanas has had a hand in.
“She’s started Kuskokwim Art Guild, she was a big part of Bethel Council of the Arts, the soup bowls, the youth art camps, Best in the West, the dog show, the list goes on,” Wasierski said. “When she hears someone come up with an idea, she starts thinking, 'Well how can I make that happen in Bethel?'”
The one organization Athanas is proudest of helping to create is the Tundra Women’s Coalition.
“When I got here, there was absolutely no place that a woman who had been assaulted, or was in trouble, or just needed shelter for her and her kids, there wasn’t any place to go,” Athanas said.
Wasierski says that’s what Athanas does: make places where people can go and feel like they belong. She added that’s what Athanas did with her high school art classroom.
“A lot of the students that would hang out in there were the ones that didn’t have a place in the school, and she opened her door for those students,” Wasierski said.
The environment created in her classroom may have saved Athanas’s life. On February 19, 1997, something happened in Bethel that many people, including Athanas, are still recovering from.
“It’s still pretty hard to talk about it,” Athanas said. “It changed everybody’s life that was there that day.”
That’s the day a student at Bethel Regional High School brought a gun to school. Wasierski was watching as Athanas approached the shooter.
“He had just shot a student, and then he shot our principal and people were running and hiding, and she went out there in the lobby and walked up to him and said, 'Evan, give me your gun,'” Wasierski said. “'You don’t want to do this.' And she was able to break through to him for that moment or so, and he didn’t shoot her.”
The shooter, Evan Ramsey, was one of the kids who found solace in Athanas’s classroom. She says that her relationship allowed her to feel like she could approach him, even with a gun in his hands.
“I think that’s probably what it was,” Athanas said. “He didn’t have those feelings of distrust towards me.”
Athanas wonders that if more people had reached out to him, maybe he wouldn’t have shot anyone. Maybe he wouldn’t have brought a gun to school.
“Afterwards it’s easier to say, 'If you had done this and this it would have been different,' but life often turns on one kind act. Or one mean act,” Athanas said.
In the 20 years that have passed since the shooting, Athanas has continued her mission of creating places for people who need them. She says that of course she's going to stay involved in retirement, but she also hopes that she’s able to inspire others to step up.
“I’m hoping that people will see that you can do a lot for your community without giving too much of yourself,” Athanas said. “You can just give a little; it doesn’t take a lot. Support yourself and your community.”
For everything she’s done, Reyne Athanas will be inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame on April 28, 2020.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Reyne Athanas taught at Kuskokwim Learning Academy. She started her teaching career at the Kilbuck School.