A Tribute to Gail Somerville, Friend of Iditarod EDU

Gail Somerville Pictured with Van Zyle Siberians During Summer Teacher’s Camp

Iditarod Educators, both near and far, wish to pay tribute to and celebrate Gail Somerville’s life and contributions to Iditarod EDU.  Our dear friend, Gail passed away on May 23, 2021.

Gail left Los Angeles for the last frontier in 1978.  Shortly after arriving in Anchorage she found herself at the Iditarod table at the downtown Hilton Hotel watching the Iditarod finish via television.  Captivated by the mushers, dogs and the idea of mushing 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Gail immediately became a fan of the race.  Starting in the phone room, she has been a volunteer for the race since 1979.

As a teacher, Gail saw the widespread real life applications that Iditarod offered and began incorporating Iditarod themed activities into her curriculum.  Success was evident through the motivation, captivation, enthusiasm and achievement shown by her students.

Somerville initiated Iditarod’s Student Volunteer program in 1980.  Before Internet, race fans and students called the phone room for updates on the race.  With the help of a Romig Middle School teacher, students were incorporated into the phone room volunteer staff to answer student question for a couple of hours after school during the race.  Before the race, Gail created Iditarod based questions and distributed them to Anchorage schools as part of a program approved by the Anchorage School District.

The students in the phone room were supervised and coached by Gail and became quite knowledgeable regarding all things Iditarod.  Not only did they learn about Alaska’s state sport of mushing, they also practiced appropriate phone manners and learned how to get along and accept responsibility in a work environment.

After teaching for a total of forty-six years, Gail retired from teaching in 2014.  Thirty-five of those years were spent at Denali Elementary.  With its location on Cordova, Gail and her students had a front row seat for the Anchorage Ceremonial start on the first Saturday of March.

Upon retirement, Gail put her energy into volunteering for Iditarod winter and summer conferences.  She was an integral part of EDU’s Anchorage support team.  Her favorite task was to transport attendees from place to place.  Former EDU leader Diane Johnson says, “Oh the stories she would tell and the visions she would weave – not just sharing Iditarod with the teachers and volunteers, but sharing her Alaska with them as well.  Sometimes she would be so busy storytelling that she’d miss a turn or take a wrong turn and take the long way to their destination.  Gail had so many little extra things to share and show which greatly enhanced each teacher’s visit to Alaska and our events.”

Gail’s son Eric and daughter-in-law Bonnie, knew how much she enjoyed volunteering for Iditarod saying, “Her favorite times in the phone room were answering calls in the middle of the night back in the old days before internet.  That was when international calls came in from all over the world seeking updates on the race.  Mom loved interacting with all those different cultures.”

There are many favorite moments and stories about Gail from the conferences.  They come from attendees, people interviewing to be Teacher on the Trial, people serving as Teacher on the Trail and from EDU faculty.  These stories, lovingly shared, truly enliven Gail Somerville and her contributions of friendship and wisdom.  To know Gail, is to love her!

Gail Somerville pictured at Matthew Failor’s 17th Dog Kennel.

Linda Fenton – 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail, EDU Faculty and Selection Committee

“I have a hard time coming up with words… Gail wore a smile better than any person I’ve ever known, and she wore it all the time.”

Brian Hickox – 2019 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail

“I remember meeting Gail for the first at the 2018 Exxon Mobile pre-conference social–an event that kicked off the Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators. At the time, I knew few people who were present at the event, and conversations mostly consisted of awkward exchanges based on trivial topics. 

Then, while standing by myself, a short, older, white-haired woman approached me with a smile on her face that eased any tension and made me feel welcomed. With eyes that expressed genuineness, and a tone that exhibited confidence and warmth, Gail introduced herself, gave me a hug, and after connecting over our passions for education, travel, dogs, and the Iditarod, she and I posed for some pictures together that were taken on her red, digital camera–an item she often had with her at any Iditarod-related events. 

Since that evening, every time I saw Gail, it was as if she and I had known each other our entire lives. It is a rarity to encounter and find someone who is as optimistic, caring, gregarious, and hospitable as Gail was. Gail loved the Iditarod and equally cared about everyone associated with it – the mushers, the dogs, the teachers, and the volunteers. It is evident that Gail’s passing leaves a void, one that cannot be easily filled. For everyone who had the privilege of meeting Gail, how lucky we are to have had someone in our lives that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Heidi Sloan – 2018 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail

“I met Gail through the Iditarod Educator’s Conferences.  She was always a one-person welcome committee to Alaska!  Her love of teachers, the Iditarod and life made all of us know we were in for a great time when she was with us.  In a day of digital photos, Gail would take the time to document our activities and then print out photo memories of our time in Alaska and give them to us as mementos.  Gail’s sense of humor and sense of fun was wonderful to behold.  It was easy to be her friend.”

Theresa Campbell – 2018 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail Finalist

“Iditarod 2016 was packed full of new experience and adventures.  I attended the Iditarod Winter Teacher’s Conference by myself, traveling from Virginia.  I made a lot of new friends and met a lot of amazing people on that first trip to Alaska.  Gail Somerville was one of those people.  Gail was assigned to be the driver to take me and two other teachers to one of the conference events.  She quickly became our new Alaska friend.  Alaska should have hired her as part of the tourism team!  She told us history, funny stories, pointed out Alaskan landmarks, introduced us to Kaladi Brother’s Coffee, drove us up to Flat Top and Chugach State Park and even took us to her favorite restaurant to enjoy dinner.

Returning to Alaska in 2018 as a Teacher on the Trail finalist, I hoped to see many of the people that I had met on my previous trip.  Just one or two days into my trip, I saw Gail again.  Her bright sparkly eyes and smile had not changed a bit.  Her enthusiasm for Alaska, dog sledding and the Iditarod were still contagious.  I’m thankful and blessed to have known her.”

Annie Kelly McGuire – 2017 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail

“I first met Gail on my second day in Alaska back in 2015.  I had just finished the Anchorage Marathon and needed a ride out to Vern Halters in Willow for Summer Teacher’s Camp.  It was arranged that Gail would pick me up after the race and drive me out there.  When Gail pulled up to pick me up, she hopped out of her car and greeted me with a giant hug and said, “Welcome to Alaska!”  We chatted for the entire 90-minute ride to Willow.  We talked about teaching, Iditarod and her love for Alaska.  I could not have asked for a better tour guide and introduction to Alaska! Gail had the best stories and a heart of gold.  I truly enjoyed getting to know her over my many trips to Alaska.  She will be greatly missed.”

Erin Montgomery – 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail and EDU Faculty

“I was sitting in the hotel conference room listening to one of the other 2015 finalist’s presentations and apparently looked nervous (my presentation was next).  This sweet lady sitting across the aisle from me handed me a little note.  It said, “You will do great!”  I looked over at her and she had this enormous, contagious warm smile.  I smiled back and thanked her for her kind note of encouragement.  We have been friends ever since.  I cherish the times I was able to spend with Gail on my trips up to Alaska.  She was one of a kind and will truly be missed.”

 Jen Reiter – 2014 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail and EDU Faculty

“It’s difficult to pinpoint and share who Gail was in a single short story.  For me, Gail was a feeling, a joy, and an emotion.  Seeing her in Alaska was like a homecoming.  She was always so genuinely happy to see you; so happy you were there and so happy to spend time with you.  Her smile lit up a room.  She was the consummate teacher… sharing her love of life with everyone.  She will be missed so very, very much…”

Sara Lamont – Teacher on the Trail Selection Committee and EDU Faculty

“My memories of Gail revolve around her loving spirit.  She always had a welcoming smile and kind words.  She loved to tell about the times she worked in the phone room during the Iditarod.  She was a wonderful supporter and a sweet volunteer of the Iditarod.  She was a teacher in Anchorage, which led to her support of the education department of Iditarod and was someone who was willing to drive teachers around during our conferences.  She loved meeting the other teachers and was a valuable resource to many of us in the earlier years of Iditarod.  She will be missed by all of the teachers who were lucky enough to meet her.”

Diane Johnson – 2000 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail & former Iditarod Education Director

“I have never known an Iditarod without Gail.  She’s always been around somewhere, giving out her smiles and good cheer.  She knew so many by name, not just the mushers, but race fans from around the world.  I met Gail in the phone room.  Folks thought we should get to know each other because I was the Teacher on the Trail and she was an Anchorage teacher.  Getting to know Gail was easy; she was friendly, kind, caring and always smiling.  When I returned year after year to the race, she always greeted me or sent me home after my time in Alaska with a big smooch on the cheek.  Gail was the biggest Iditarod race fan that I have ever known and her passion for the Iditarod shown through every moment she was around!”

Terrie Hanke – 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail, Eye on the Trail Journalist and Selection Committee

For sixteen of the past seventeen years, I’ve returned to volunteer for the race.  I count myself fortunate to have met Gail way back in 2005 as a finalist for Teacher on the Trail and have looked forward to spending time with her each year upon returning.  The smile she wore and the sparkle in her eyes made a lasting and great first impression.  It’s what I’ll always remember about Gail; that and her little red digital pocket camera that she used to capture awesome candid shots during the conferences and on field excursions.  She went the extra mile in everything she did.  With Gail, you felt like the most special person on earth, or at least in Alaska.  The world is a better place and we are all better people for knowing Gail.

Andrea (Finney) Auf der Heyde – 1999 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail

“Her smile and her spirit drew me to her as soon as I saw her.  Gail embraced everyone and gifted us with her incredible joy.  How very fortunate for me to have been touched by her loving spirit.  She was indeed an angel among us.  Beautiful memories and love to her family.”

A couple thousand words on a page cannot begin to do justice to the person Gail was and what she meant to Iditarod Educators, Iditarod’s Education Department and hundreds if not thousands of students.  The challenge for all is to be like Gail.  Diane Johnson says, “Go ahead.  Spread more smiles and love than Gail.  You just can’t do it like she did, but try.  Be like Gail in that way.  Be the spirit lifter she was and help make the day a little brighter for someone.”  

Gail, may you rest in peace with the assurance that you are loved and cherished by many and your effervescent smile and zestful spirit lives on in our hearts!