From the mouth of Babe

Ethel Bilderback, better known as Babe Johnson, ’39, is the oldest living CHS graduate still residing Cordova. Cordova High School Annual photo

On the 100th anniversary of Cordova High School graduations, I thought it would be fun to track down the oldest living alumni for their memories of the good old days.

The Cordova Schools Centennial Yearbook, 1908-2008, has photos of every graduating class, and seemed a good starting point for this endeavor. But it turns out every time I thought I had found the oldest graduate, an older one would pop up, usually by suggestion from the one I had just tabbed as the winner.

Finding alumni that might qualify, but no longer live here proved almost impossible, so I ended up zeroing in on ones who still reside in Cordova.

We all know that Cordova is a small town, but can you believe the oldest local living CHS graduate lives right across Odiak Slough from my place, and I can see her house out the window?

In fact, I completely overlooked this super alumna, because when she graduated in the class of 1949, she was listed as Ethel Bilderback.

Actually, my sister Sharon Ermold, who worked at the museum from many years, was the first to suggest her, saying she thought Babe Johnson might be the one.

It turns out that Ethel married Knute Johnson right out of high school and was nicknamed Babe somewhere along the line. Maybe it’s because of all the kids they had, which added up to four sons.

These days everyone has a top-secret cell phone number, but I remembered that Brooke Johnson was related, so I called her to get Babe’s number, and asked if she felt Babe would be up for an interview.

Her granddaughter laughed.

“Oh yes. She loves to talk,” she said. “She’s a Bilderback, you know.”

Which I didn’t know, but I know now.

Her brother Ed Bilderback was a legendary hunting and fishing guide, and also master storyteller.

Babe answered the phone on the first ring and was raring to go. From the mouth of Babe, 30 minutes of delightful memories, with a lot of laughter.

For starters, when I explained why I called, she pointed out, almost as she expected my call, that “it’s about time. It only took you 90 years to ask.”

So, I’m apologizing before I even ask a question.

She summarized her life rather succinctly: “Went gillnetting and had a bunch of kids.”

Any other jobs?

“Worked for Jack Dinneen at Dinneen’s Market a few times, just to get away from the kids.”

Babe also paired up with Rose Weathers to run “Jaws,” (an abbreviation for Johnson and Weathers), a gardening enterprise right outside her front door, which featured a greenhouse, bedding plants, soil and other supplies.

I asked about her school years, and the legendary CHS teaching duo of Kaiser and Karo, whose tenure ran from the mid-’30s to 1964.

“Kaiser and I got along, not so much with Karo,” she said.

Babe wanted to talk most of all about basketball.

“We would fly up to Anchorage and play them and then they would fly down here for games.”

Babe was not impressed with the rules for women’s basketball in those days.

“It was a silly half-court game, where some of the players had to stay on each end,” she said.

Because of limited travel, the CHS girls and boys teams also played a regular schedule against city league teams.

It was City League action that she remembered most.

“There were two teams, the Nurses and the Imperial,” she said. “The Imperial had a player named Vivian Nichols (wife of Imperial Bar owner Jim Nichols) who was pretty good.”

Babe’s basketball career took off, literally, after she graduated from high school, and started playing for the Cordova women’s team.

“We would fly up to Palmer in those old Cordova Air DC-3s, and land right in the middle of a farm field,” she recalled. “They would come out in a horse-drawn wagon filled with straw to meet us with Moose Milk.”

Moose were common in the MatSu at that time, but there were no moose on the Copper River Delta back then. In fact, to this day the Palmer High School mascot is the moose.

“Have you ever heard of Moose Milk?” Babe asked. “It was fresh milk from their farms, with vodka and Kahlua mixed in.”

One wonders if these games had rules of their own. I don’t imagine they played the traditional half-court game, nor did they wear skirts.

“When Palmer came to Cordova, we always took them out clam digging,” Babe said. “And of course, had a lot of fun at the Imperial Bar.”

Babe didn’t describe the ball games or the outcomes.

But these gals played in a league of their own, and I suspect Ethel Babe Bilderback Johnson, Class of ’49, was one of the stars.

At age 90, she is still in a league of her own, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her wander across Odiak slough at low tide to challenge me to a little one-on-one at the small asphalt basketball court down in front of our house.

Go Babe! You make the Class of 1949 proud.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.