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AB Rankin: 40 Years At City Hall

AB2.jpg
Pipa Escalante/KUCB
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Since December 1975, the City of Unalaska has had one constant employee.

“I may be having an identity crisis next week, but right now my name is AB Rankin. I've been the City Treasurer for the City of Unalaska for 40 years and that's all I've done since I was 26.”

And today, she retires. AB grew up in Unalaska, but when it was time for high school she had to leave the island. The U.S. government had three schools they would send Alaska Native kids to including Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka. But she did not want to go there.

“I said to my parents I want to go to a good high school, so I can go to a good college, so I can get a good education. But the problem was then the U.S. government didn’t pay. So I had to pay. I had to go to work.”

That summer she worked in a crab cannery

“My job that summer was to take three sections of crab legs and grab them up off the moving table and throw ‘em in a can.”

And she says it was fun.

“Every day we had to clean the processing area with water and of course we managed to spray each other as much as we could. It was so much fun. It taught me that I didn't want to do that for a living. “

With the money she made, she paid her way through Sitka High School and from there she went on to Western Washington University.

She met John Rankin, got married, had kids, moved to Montana, lived there for seven years and got divorced. But with two kids, rent, and insurance she was losing money, so she went home to Unalaska where her mom told her to get a job.

“We celebrated Thanksgiving and then she said you know there's a job open at city hall and I laughed and went, ‘What? There's a city hall?’”

She was imagining a tall building with columns.

“She said yeah, it’s almost just across the street. And so I walked in, applied, got a call for an interview, and then the city manager -- he arranged the interview and his one interview question is: 'Is your divorce final?' And when I said yes, he said 'you're hired.'”

He wanted to make sure AB would not leave and go back to Montana. But she was planning on going back the next year. The only reason she’s still here is the fog.

“For three days the planes didn't fly. So it was like OK, God's telling me I'm staying here so I'm staying here. Every day you look at the weather and go no planes again, no planes again. After the third day I said, ok, I’m not going.”

At first the job wasn’t much.

“It was make coffee for the clerk and the manager. Let the manager's dog in and out. Make copies.”

It paid $3.50 an hour. Then again, the City's budget for the year was $356,860. In 2015, Unalaska spent over $25 million. And when AB first started, there was no bank.

“The cash was all nasty and old because it was hard to get it here. So it would be wadded up, it would be filthy. We had to take any extra cash there was over our -- I think it was 100 or 200 as our cash in the cash box – take it to the little tiny grocery store and ask him to take our cash and write a check to us. And he was happy to get the cash cause it was so dang hard to get. “

In the early 80's crab was king.

“Boats would come in with a million pounds and think nothing of it.   Now sometimes million is the quota for the whole fleet."

But then, the crab stocks disappeared.

“And so the town became a ghost town. There was a freeze on every purchase. The city manager had to OK every purchase including if it was a pencil. There was no cash. There was no money. So I would have to call the larger plants and go, ‘were you going to pay your utility bill today?’ So I could make payroll. There wasn't enough cash to make payroll. It was scary”

That’s what caused her to be so conservative with the City’s money.

“I lived through it. I don't want anybody to live through it again. To have money and then have none. I mean none."

Then, in the 1990's ground fishing began and things started to pick up.

“Money started pouring in here to the point where we couldn't handle it. We didn't have the equipment we didn't have the people we weren't set up to handle as much money as was pouring in.”

After years of struggle the City was able to create a unified computer system. And now after more than 40 years, AB says it’s hard to leave the City.

“There comes a time when you know it's time. My knees hurt. My teeth hurt. My eyes are going. But part of me is sad about it because I wanted to stay young enough to keep doing it cause I enjoy it. I love it! I mean journal entries are my life. I dream about them!”

But she has plans for her retirement. She is going to pay a visit to three rivers -- the Shenandoah, the Shannon and the River Dee -- and she will continue her father’s tradition of spreading rocks from Unalaska.

“Someday some geologists is going to go, ‘Wait a minute. We're going to have to revise our way we think. This rock -- how did it get here?!’”

It’s something she does everywhere she travels.

“When we went to Scotland, I didn't check with customs or anything cause I was afraid they would tell me no. So I wrapped up tiny rocks and I put them in a sock and put it in my suitcase and I thought if they ask me about them I’ll tell them its an Alaska Native religious thing that I can’t interfere with. Well, I don’t want to get arrested. I was the City Treasurer.”

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.