Odess: ‘Sitka opened her arms to me’

Carol Odess stands in front of Allen Memorial Hall. The theater inside of it will officially be known as the Odess Theater after the Sunday (6-7-15) dedication ceremony. (KCAW photo/ Vanessa Walker)
Carol Odess stands in front of Allen Memorial Hall. The theater inside of it will officially be known as the Odess Theater after the Sunday (6-7-15) dedication ceremony. (KCAW photo/ Vanessa Walker)

Big-ticket philanthropy usually goes like this: Charitable organization makes a pitch; donor writes a check. There might be some reports to write, and maybe the donor is invited to a nice lunch. Or at least this is the way it’s supposed to work. Carol Odess, a major benefactor of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, is an outlier.

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Allen Memorial Hall is a construction site. Sounds of wood sanders, table saws and hammers emanate from the building. But, over all of that noise is the passionate voice of Carol Odess with that unmistakable southern lilt.

Originally from a small town outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Odess now spends several months a year in Sitka, mostly working on this building. That’s how it’s been for the last several years.

“I came into campus on a Saturday when they do their volunteer days and Gerry Flemming, who used to own the paint store in town, was sweeping. He gave me a broom and said here, this is what you can do because I didn’t know what I was capable of doing. So the broom has become my job,” she said.

Allen Memorial Hall and the theater inside it were once condemned. Community members mobilized around the building and saved it from demolition in the 90s. It was stabilized, and listed in the National Historic Register. But it simply was not a functional building anymore, despite its rich history at the heart of campus.

Allen Auditorium prior to restoration. (KCAW photo)
Allen Auditorium prior to restoration. (KCAW photo)

Odess, who was just donating her sweeping skills one day, decided to take financial matters into her own hands. She made significant financial contributions that allowed the Sitka Fine Arts Camp to restore the 104-year-old building to mint condition.

“What kind of angel funder would you see sweeping everyday and cleaning up?” Roger Schmidt said, who is the Executive Director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

“One year, Forrest was doing all this drywall work up high on scaffolding. Well, Carol is pushing the scaffolding down, around. She’s just spending 8 hours in there. Just so he doesn’t have to get up and down. She’s just pushing around the scaffold. So she’s really concerned about making her money, her husband’s money, the Odess family’s money go as far as it can go. So she’s just as much of a volunteer as any other volunteer we’ve had,” he said.

Since Odess spends so much of her time at Allen Hall, she’s become an expert in the construction process, donning a comfy sweatsuit everyday.

“Even though the light fixtures are modern when you really look at them, they seem to be perfect in this room of the old wood and the big high ceilings of wood. But they go well, don’t they? Isn’t that amazing?” she said.

Odess clearly has more of herself wrapped up in this building than money. There are fond memories. She first visited Sitka a dozen years ago–as a tourist. But that trip was a special one.

“I came here, in the beginning, with my husband. To go across to the other side to Baranof wilderness lodge to have one last good trip. He was sick, and we knew he wasn’t going to make it. So we came in June and he died in November of that year,” she said.

Odess’s husband was a doctor, and before he died, he asked that she donate some of the money he left behind toward causes that impact the greatest number of people. For her, Allen Hall was just that.

In the years after he died, Sitka became her second home. Acquaintances quickly became friends. Those friends became family.

“I don’t why it happened like this. But, Sitka opened her hands and her heart to me. I belong here,” she said.

Strictly speaking, the Odess Theater in Allen Hall bears the name of Carol’s husband. But every corner of this building bears the personal stamp of her time, energy, and enthusiasm — and we mean every corner.

“Is this not the most beautiful view you have ever seen in a lady’s restroom? So when I came, there was snow on the mountain there. So standing here and looking at the snow-capped mountain, looked like somebody had stood there with powdered sugar and shook it on top. It was like, oh god that’s so beautiful,” she said.

Carol Odess just has a way of finding beauty in the most unlikely places.

She will cut the ribbon on the theater that bears her name Sunday (6-7-15)  at 1PM on the Sheldon Jackson Campus.