COLD WEATHER CASUALTY – Sitka Public Works Department employees dig up a section of broken water line near the corner of Price Street and Sawmill Creek Road this afternoon. Nearby houses continue to have water, but may have reduced pressure. While work is being done, the intersection is closed from the corner to Lillian Drive. Detours for access to the Lance Drive and the Hillside Subdivision neighborhoods are from Smith Street and Jarvis Street. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Mel Holmgren, Former Sitkan, Dies at Age 89

Mel Holmgren



Melvin Hugo Holmgren died peacefully in his sleep on Dec. 2, 2019, in Portland, Oregon. The former Sitka resident was 89. 
Mel was born Nov. 17, 1930, in Tacoma, Washington, to Swede-Finn immigrants Alfred and Fanny Holmgren.
The eldest child of a Baptist preacher, Mel grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Adventurous from the start, he built a bicycle out of parts and rode it from Massachusetts to Arkansas to attend John Brown University. After two years, he moved on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1954.
He met his lifelong love, nursing student Beverly Swanson, in 1955 while attending Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  They were married in 1956 and immediately started a family.
With two children and a third on the way, Mel decided to leave seminary one quarter shy of receiving his degree. They moved to Colorado where he could train with Missionary Communications Service and get his private pilot’s license.
After a time, they realized they didn’t feel called to full-time missions work, and Mel accepted a job with Martin-Denver Co. in Denver, Colorado, working on the test force measuring systems on the test firing stands for Titan I, the United States’ first multistage intercontinental ballistic missile.  Moving on from there, he worked at Collins Radio Co. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a project engineer for military contracts.  But it wasn’t long before he and Bev got the itch to see Alaska.
They and their now five children arrived in Anchorage, in May 1964 on the heels of the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. He became an electronic design engineer with the Federal Aviation Agency, but soon decided he wanted to leave the civil service to have more freedom in his electronic design work.  After the birth of child number six, they moved to Fairbanks, where Mel accepted a job with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.  His work was providing electronic engineering assistance to the scientific research staff.  He worked on many projects including the early years of the Poker Flats rocket range, communications for Mount Redoubt volcanology, and sea ice mechanics.
Moving inland did not spare them from nature’s fury. This time, they found themselves at the mercy of the vast Fairbanks flood of 1967. When their house flooded, they paddled by canoe to higher ground to await transport to the university to wait it out.  It wasn’t long afterward that they bought a piece of land in Musk Ox Subdivision overlooking the Tanana Valley and Mel began building a home for his family of eight. They endured temperatures that dropped down to as low as 60 below zero at times, but the house stayed warm and cozy.  And then their family grew once more to include their seventh and last child.
During this time, Mel helped to construct Bethel Baptist Church on Farmer’s Loop Road.  He also taught adult Sunday school, served as an elder and usher, and kept the furnace running at the church.  Mel and Bev continued to support missions, and often had missionaries in their home for a home-cooked meal.  Mel bought an old military bus at auction, gutted it and built a fully-functioning motor home with beds for nine, a kitchen with stove and refrigerator, and seats to comfortably accommodate the entire family.  Twice he saved up his leave time at the university to drive his family on a six-week round-trip vacation to the Midwest via the infamous Alcan Highway.
After 10 years in Fairbanks, Mel felt it was time for a new adventure and in 1977 used that same bus to move the family and all their earthly possessions to Sitka, where he joined his friend and former co-worker, John Teas, as a partner in Sitka Electronics Lab – a marine electronics sales and service business that catered to the fisherman of Southeast Alaska. His youngest son, Eric, eventually joined him in the business, which brought him deep satisfaction.  Mel spent the remainder of his career keeping the Sitka fishing fleet in good electronic order.  He retired at the age of 77 following the death of his partner.
Never one to be still, he kept the family vehicles and home in good repair in addition to working long hours at his business.  Having seen his mother suffer a nervous breakdown in his younger years, Mel made it a point to have a nap every day after lunch and often after dinner before going back to work.  Sunday was his day to rest. 
Together with several other families, Mel and Bev, started Trinity Baptist Church in their home.  The church, now known as Grace Harbor, continues to minister to the needs of the Sitka community today. 
Born in the height of the Great Depression, Mel was known to be frugal and judicious with money. His children remember his habit of chewing only a half a stick of Double Mint gum at a time.  It was an honor when he chose to give one of them the other half.  He methodically put away a portion of every check for retirement and the Lord’s work.
In spite of all his accomplishments and the respect he garnered throughout his career, he said he considered his role as a father to be the most important and satisfying of his lifetime.
After Beverly died in 2013, Mel began to decline. In 2016, he moved to Portland where his youngest daughter lives.  After failing knees led to several falls, he moved into a group home with care takers Tina and John Patan.  They lovingly cared for him as his memory and physical condition continued to deteriorate.  Just a few weeks after celebrating his 89th birthday, Mel passed away in his sleep following a bout of pneumonia.
He is survived by his children and their spouses: Melody and Allan Gabler of LaGrande, Oregon;  Jonathan  and Jill Holmgren of Fairbanks; Daniel Holmgren of Fairbanks; Peter and Lynn Holmgren of Fairbanks; Eric and Liz Holmgren of Sitka;  Valerie and Mike Reninger of Olympia, Washington; and Anneli and Dave Anderson of Portland, Oregon.
He is also survived by his grandchildren, Drew Gabler, Adam Holmgren, Erika Holmgren, Tupper Becker, Tucker Holmgren, Brandol Holmgren, Katie Holmgren, Ben Holmgren, and Megan Reninger, as well as great-grandchildren Cameron Cooper and Tobias Becker.  He was preceded in death by his wife, Beverly, and their grandson Traven Holmgren.
A memorial service will be held in Sitka later this spring, when his ashes will be buried next to those of his wife at Sitka National Cemetery.
For more information about the memorial service or to leave condolences, visit the family’s website at:  holmgren-memorial.com.


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