Upon the news of his passing on November 29, Alaskan’s across the state remembered Father Michael Oleksa’s service as a priest, scholar, teacher, historian, and author. The Anchorage Daily News memorialized Father Oleksa as one of Alaska’s great communicators and “one of the state’s foremost proponents and teachers of cross-cultural communication, working to help build bridges of understanding between Alaska’s white and Native communities, between his church and the lay people, and between youth, adults and elders of all kinds.”
Father Oleksa was deeply committed to helping educators understand and appreciate Native culture, so they could be more effective in the classroom. His passion for teaching others how to better reflect on the lens of their culture, and for bringing cross-cultural understanding to new educators to our state, led him to work with Alaska Staff Development Network– a partnership that lasted for decades.
In collaboration with Sharon Bandle, Father Oleksa taught Communicating Across Cultures and Alaska Alive, two courses that meet the requirements for Alaska teacher certification for over 25 years.He taught these two-day classes in person, three times a year, to literally thousands of new teachers and administrators. A talented storyteller, he educated in a humorous and engaging way that left a big impact in a few days time.
Remembrances from ASDN founder J. Kelly Tonsmeire:
I first met Father Michael in the early 80’s. He was an instructor for UAF’s Summer Cross Cultural Orientation Program for newly hired educators from the Lower 48 about to head out to teaching positions in rural Alaska. Father Michael was the most dynamic and engaging presenter I had ever seen. He was a gifted storyteller with a world class sense of humor. He taught thousands of Alaska educators life long lessons on effective cross cultural communication strategies. He was a scholar of Alaska history, as well. Father Michael developed a TV series on cross cultural communication that was broadcast nationwide on PBS. He was also a nationally recognized keynote speaker, who spoke at a number of national and state conferences. There will never be another like Father Michael. He embodied the best of Alaska. I treasure my 40 year relationship with Father Michael and will miss him dearly. If I make it to heaven, I’m sure he’ll be there to greet me. RIP, Father Michael.
Remembrances from ASDN Collaborator Sharon Bandle:
I am not sure there are enough words to describe Father Michael Oleksa. He will be most remembered as a gifted storyteller, but there was so much more to this wonderful individual. He is often described as a priest, scholar, teacher, historian, author, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, friend and much more. He lived life to the fullest and shared his wealth of information with his students or those he met. I was privileged to see Father Michael in many of those roles but mostly as a co-teacher and friend. We worked together teaching courses to educators across the state for the past twenty-five years. Our last class together was in Kodiak this last November. I will treasure the time we had together as we shared our stories and visited places in the Kodiak community. He was truly passionate about Alaska’s history and the Alaska Native people and culture. He spent many years living in rural Alaskan communities and recognized that communication or miscommunication, he would say, could be a barrier to learning. He developed the “Communicating Across Culture” series which later developed into a class. Hundreds of students from around the state took this class which included the Kodiak November class. I just reread the final reflections from that last class. Each person echoed how much they learned in their understanding about communication in life and in the classroom. Many said it was the best class they had ever taken. Yes, Father Michael made a difference for all of those he taught or met. Rest in Peace my dear friend.