Letter to the Editor: A tribute to Zak Jacobs

The following letter draws on material originally written as a eulogy to recently deceased Cordova resident Zak Jacobs.


In fall 2003, Zak asked me to give a talk on the oil spill legacy to his marine biology class. Zak was a “spill kid,” a generation of very young children who had become adults during the 20-year court battle with Exxonover basic oil-spill-related damages. The spill kids were oiled by the spill trauma as surely as the beaches of the Sound. I accepted.

After class, we created an independent project. I shared key academic papers with Zak and two other students. They read them, asked questions, and drew their own conclusions.

Months later, when the boys presented their research at school, I was impressed. I invited them to Washington, D.C. with me and others for the 15th spill memorial in March 2004. We held a community event to practice their talks. Stories and tears flowed as community members were moved to share personal stories, and the boys realized they would be representing the entire town.

Our week in Washington, D.C. was packed with high-level meetings. During our meeting with the EPA, Zak listened as the adults spoke. When the EPA Administrator addressed the boys, Zak began to pull his notes out of his pocket. He hesitated and began to speak from his heart as he had seen the others do. He never used his notes again. Instead, he owned the stories, and he always finished with a direct ask for the greater good. For example, Zak asked the National Science Foundation, “Why can’t scientists write papers in plain English, so kids like me become interested in science?”

This STONE of innocence, honesty, and goodwill created ripples. Cordova high school students began to interview spill survivors to document their stories. The National Science Foundation began to require its grant recipients to write layperson versions of their academic papers.

Riki Ott

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