VETERANS DAY – Military veterans and supporters march in the Veterans Day parade Monday near Crescent Harbor. The small parade was followed by a lunch at the American Legion Hall. On Wednesday, the Honoring Our Veterans Luncheon, sponsored by Sitka Tribe of Alaska, will be held noon to 2 p.m. at the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

(Mary) Jolene (Nielsen, Overman) Rodriguez

(Mary) Jolene (Nielsen, Overman) Rodriguez

In Memoriam:

If you’re about done with summer visitors, buck up buttercup. Consider: (Mary) Jolene (Nielsen, Overman) Rodriguez (you might have known her as “Auntie Jolene”) who went on a long walk into the woods on July 26, 2017. Her spirit is carried on by her three children, grandchildren, three surviving siblings, Sitka Native Education Program kids, Sitka Tribal Tours plus Visit Sitka co-workers and an extended family of relations and friends from every walk of life. 

We were lucky for 58 years to have a “master” tour guide to teach us how to love questions and laugh away the stupid. “We want to visit the RAPTURE Center – is it free? What’s the elevation in Sitka? Where is the Native Dance – is it free? Do you have grocery stores here? Hey, you’re a real person.” 

In her lifetime, Jolene made contact time after time and friends every summer. Visitors were always surprised to learn this proud Tlingit woman traveled widely, making her home in Oregon, Massachusetts and North Carolina before returning to Sitka to practice her craft: making people laugh.

She bragged that there wasn’t a bus of cranky, wet complaining cruise ship guests that she couldn’t turn with a wink and a joke. Soon she had them speaking Tlingit “thank you” and dancing with her favorite group, the Naa Kahidi Dancers. As they exited, her voice often rose above the room as she sang along.

“There are a lot of words I could use to describe Jolene, but calm wouldn’t be one of them,” said her friend Tonia Puletau-Lang. “When she was happy about something, joy and excitement would radiate from her whole person, and she would beam. When she was unhappy about something … you KNEW.” Puletau-Lang continued, “That girl loved to laugh and she was fiery! I loved her for it.”

Another long-time love was the Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) where Jolene mothered many generations of SNEP kids with her driving, life lessons, and cooking. Shawaan Jackson-Gamble wrote on Jolene’s Facebook page, “Lost one of the nicest ladies I knew and best bus driver I had for SNEP. Really gunna miss running into you whenever I got to Sitka. My heart is breaking.”

Those who knew Jolene will remember her every time they taste homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam shared at work for those who wouldn’t take the herring eggs and seaweed. Will hear her sassy voice telling visitors, “It’s almost free and yes, I’m a real person!” as we face down new questions and less-than-awesome visitor attitudes. We will remember her salty sense of humor and love of celebrity gossip websites even when they froze her “work” computer. We will know that her faithfulness signaled to us who loved her that her long walk must have started because she would never have no-called, no-showed to anything she had promised to do. So in honor of our friend we will laugh longer, smile bigger and hug harder and we will not stay calm! 


Jolene is survived by her father, brothers, children and grandchildren along with all of us who loved her like the family of our hearts. If you are wondering how to celebrate her life, we know that Jolene adored visiting the eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center, communing with the bears at Fortress of the Bear, and sending visitors to explore the wonder of St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Donations in her honor are always welcome.

Login Form