Canterbury's tale

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 - 19:00
He’s seen it all in 49 years of service
U.S. Army Alaska Media Relations Officer Chuck Canterbury points to a picture of himself during a retirement ceremony held Dec. 13 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Canterbury is retiring after 49 years of service to the Army.

Need to know something about the Army in Alaska? For nearly four decades, there’s been one sure way to find an answer:

Just ask Chuck.

That won’t be the case for long. After nearly 49 years with the Army, Charles “Chuck” Canterbury is retiring from his position as the U.S. Army Alaska’s Media Relations Officer — a position he’s held for the past 38 years.

“It’s been quite a run,” said Canterbury, 73, during a retirement ceremony held Dec. 13 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Canterbury joined the Army in 1964 after graduating college from Syracuse University. He got out three years later, but his career with Uncle Sam was only beginning, as he immediately got a job working in public affairs for the Army.

He’s been doing it ever since.

Canterbury’s early assignments included a stint at the Army’s since-abandoned biological warfare headquarters, where the military was working on “some heavy duty stuff” during the height of the Cold War.

“It was pretty intense,” Canterbury said.

That job ended shortly after Canterbury organized a press conference for President Richard Nixon, who announced the end of the program.

As his career progressed, Canterbury began to think about putting down roots. By 1974, he and his wife, Anne, had two small children and were close to buying a home when word came that a job had opened up at Fort Richardson.

“As a kid I had always wanted to go to Alaska,” he said.

So Canterbury loaded his wife and two kids — Christopher, 6, and Heather, 2 — into a Chevy Blazer and headed north.

Because he and Anne weren’t sure what the shopping situation would be like along the way, the couple packed as many disposable diapers as they could fit into the Blazer.

“I had enough diapers for an Army,” Chuck said.

They arrived in Alaska with every last one of them.

“Little miss Heather potty trained herself on the way up here!” he said.

An avid outdoorsman who had always dreamed of an Alaska adventure, Chuck was thrilled about the move. Anne took a bit more convincing.

“It was only going to be for three years,” she recalled.

Eventually, she decided Alaska would make a good home.

“It grew on her,” Chuck said.

Anne became a teacher while Chuck went to work crafting press releases and writing stories about the Army’s work in Alaska. It was never boring work.

The job often required Canterbury to travel to far-flung locations he would have never otherwise gotten to visit.

“There were experiences that happened to me here that would not have happened anywhere else,” he said.

From Savoonga to Sitka, if the Army’s been there, it’s a good bet Canterbury has, too. He once accompanied the King of Norway on a visit to the Fort Richardson Wildlife Center, and he was in Fairbanks when both Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan visited the Golden Heart City. There, he used a stepladder to get above the crowds and snap a photo of the pontiff.

In 1976, Canterbury covered the graduation of a class of 51 Eskimo women into the Alaska Territorial Guard, and later escorted some of the graduates back to their villages. He said getting to witness the historic event was one of the highlights of his career.

“That was, I think, a critical moment for Alaska Natives,” he said.

The job hasn’t always been fun. Canterbury said the past decade has been difficult, with soldiers constantly deployed overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. When they don’t come home, it’s the Public Affairs Office that’s tasked with informing the media.

“That kinda got to me after a while,” he said.

Even the tough parts of the job can be worthwhile, though. Canterbury said he goes out of his way to put together a folder for the families of fallen soldiers containing press clippings and other information about the soldier’s life and death.

“They would never see that stuff otherwise,” he said.

During his time with the Army, Canterbury has worked with 21 different Public Affairs Officers. The current PAO, Lt. Bill Coppernoll, said that extrordinary length of service is a testament to Canterbury’s ability.

“That’s pretty special and historic,” Lt. Coppernoll said.

Canterbury also found time to write a column for the Anchorage Times. Sometimes humorous, other times informational, “Canterbury’s Army” ran from 1982 to 1987, when the paper folded.

“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I could write anything I wanted to.”

He also served for 14 years as managing editor of the Arctic Soldier, an award-winning quarterly magazine about the Army in Alaska.

Gen. Michael Garrett attended Canterbury’s retirement ceremony, where he presented Canterbury with a Superior Civil Service Award and a U.S. flag flown over Afghanistan.

“You have magnificently represented our civilian workforce,” he said.

More than Canterbury’s accomplishments, Gen. Garrett said he was most impressed with Canterbury’s work outside the base.

“Chuck’s professional accolades pale in comparison to the example he and Anne have set,” he said.

The Canterbury kids turned out pretty good. Chris is now an attorney, while Heather became a professional ballet dancer. They live in Eagle River, as do Chuck and Anne’s four grandchildren.

Canterbury said he plans to spend his retirement watching his grandkids’ hockey games and getting out into the outdoors. His two passions are king salmon fishing and moose hunting, and he’s excited about the prospect of getting his moose next fall.

“It’s time to roll another one into the freezer,” he said.

Canterbury’s last day will be Dec. 28, but Lt. Coppernoll said he doesn’t yet have a replacement lined up.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said.

Between now and then, Canterbury plans to spend most of his time sorting through the 38 years worth of paper and memories packed into his famously cluttered office.

“I’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.

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