Obituary: May Hammett Ekemo

April 30, 1922–October 29, 2018

With all four of her children at her side, May Hammett Ekemo passed away at her home in Seattle on Oct. 29, 2018. She was 96 years.

May was born on April 30, 1922 in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised on a small farm with 15 siblings, “half, whole and step.”

After graduating from high school, she moved to Vicksburg to live with an aunt and completed nursing school in three years.

One day, while working for a doctor there, she was asked to post a message from a fellow doctor in Valdez, Alaska, saying he was desperate for nurses. It was a warm southern day in April, and the doctor commented: “I know of no one who would be going to Alaska of all places but take this over and hang it up.”

She and two fellow nurses laughed about the missive, with one joking “Where in the world is Alaska?” but by the time they had reached the bulletin board, the trio decided they would find out.

May Hammett, far right, and two fellow nurses display the uniform of the day after graduating from nursing school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944. Ekemo family photo

North to Alaska they went, crossing America in trains crammed with WWII troops, and then sailing to Alaska in a blacked-out Alaska Steamship vessel, to arrive in snowbound Valdez and tie up to a dock lined with every available bachelor dressed in his finest. The news that three nurses were arriving was Big News.

It turns out the one that won her heart was not at dockside but did sell her a pair of shoes equipped for the Valdez climate. After a whirlwind romance that included shooting pool at the famous Pinzon Bar, plus a famous “Love Triangle with a Bear” near Cordova (see accompanying story), she married John Ekemo in Valdez on Jan. 31, 1945.

The couple lived in Valdez for several years, where John worked at the fuel storage facility, while May practiced her nursing. More than once, when there was no doctor in Valdez, it was she who attended various injuries, including a lad with a gaff hook in his cheek that had to be taken all the way to a doctor in Glennallen, with May riding by his side, over what was then a very bouncy gravel road.

In December 1958 they and their four children moved to Cordova, joining Py and Edna Kaiser to open K & E Foodland, a small grocery store located in what is now the home of the Copper River Watershed Project.

Together they operated the family-oriented business, famous for its service and generosity, until selling the enterprise to Alaska Commercial Company in April 1979.

In November 1982 John and May moved to Seattle, and their condominium near Ballard soon became a gathering place for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who resided nearby or were passing through.

May was always known to have “a little bite to eat” for anyone who came by, as well as her generosity and never saying no to anyone who needed help. She loved reading mysteries, doing crosswords, and watching NCIS reruns.

May was raised in a family of strong faith and was a devoted member of the Cordova Baptist Church. In the words of one fellow churchgoer, upon hearing of her passing, “She was such a wonderful Christian woman — I can hear the angels singing as she entered.”

While in Seattle, she became a very active member of the Northminster Presbyterian Church, serving both as an Elder and Deacon over the years.

In Cordova, May was a member of Eastern Star, and for many years the advisor for Cordova Rainbow Girls. She loved her Tuesday night bowling league and her Wednesday canasta group.  Among her keepsakes was a Cordova Bowling League pin for her highest game, a score of 171.

May is survived by her son John Ekemo Jr., and daughters Susan Shellhorn, Janice Ekemo, and Candice Brooks; grandchildren Heidi Moorhead, Gretchen Carpenter, Brian Farnes, Ben Robbins and Rachael Williams; and great-grandchildren Ellie Carpenter, Huck and Liesl Moorhead, Jericho Williams, and Gabriel and Nathaniel Farnes.

A memorial service will be held in late January in Seattle.