By Melinda Munson
Sheryl and Silas (Si) Dennis Jr., grand marshals for Skagway’s 2021 Fourth of July parade, have been together for 44 years. If it wasn’t for Moe’s Frontier Bar and bartender Ron Ackerman, the two might never have courted, married, raised three kids and called Skagway home.
Sheryl, originally from Oregon, “came for the summer” after graduating college. Her plan was to work at The Trading Post for one season. Si, born and raised in Skagway, needed a pool partner. Sheryl’s friend turned him down but Sheryly said yes. That’s when the two started what Sheryl describes as “Skagway dating,” which is meeting in bars. She said Ackerman finally told Si, “you need to take her out.”
While it was traditional for brides to be married in their hometown, Sheryl and Si celebrated their nuptials in Skagway, as a way to honor Si’s parents.
Si’s father, Silas Dennis Sr., a Tlingit, came to Skagway from Haines with Si’s grandfather, a fisherman. Si’s mother, Dorothy Jorgensen, a Haida, originally from Hydaburg, moved to Skagway to work at the sanitarium as a nurse’s aide. At the time of their marriage, Si’s parents faced resistance from their families as the two came from different cultural groups.
When it was time for Sheryl and Si’s marriage, Sheryl said the fact she was Caucasian was never an issue.
“His family was welcoming to me from the start.”
Si and Sheryl’s three children, Beau, Morgan and Lahlan spent time with their grandparents when their mom and dad worked. With their grandparents, the children had the opportunity to learn some Tlingit and listen to traditional stories. Beau, a formline artist, designed the Skagway School District’s mascot.
Sheryl worked at various stores until she landed a job at Alaska Power and Telephone. She retired in 2019.
Si started working for White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad when he was 16. Two weeks after high school graduation, he was drafted into the Vietnam War where he served as a helicopter gunner. Boot camp was the first time he ever left Alaska. He remembers being called a baby killer.
Si described what it was like to return to Skagway after three years of war.
“It was kind of hard because nobody really said welcome home except for my family. No one asked me how I was,” he said.
After Vietnam, Si was employed by the railroad for 14 years as a heavy duty operator. He then spent 35 years as a maintenance worker for the National Park Service where he helped renovate 22 buildings. He also worked as a longshoreman.
The theme for this year’s parade is “Skagway: We are one.” The banner, as usual, was crafted by Jean Worley. The theme is written in both English and Tlingit, surrounded by abalone shell buttons.
According to Sheryl and Si, living as a mixed race couple in Skagway wasn’t an issue for them or their children. However, Si remembers instances as a child, when being an Alaska Native presented challenges.
He recalled one time he and his siblings were at a preacher’s house for dinner. The preacher gave a fervent prayer, aimed at saving the souls of the Native children in front of him.
”He was going to take the heathen out of us,” Si said. When they went home, Si’s mom wanted to confront the preacher. Si’s dad told her not to, and they started attending a different church.
Si’s father was the first Native Alaskan to become a member of Skagway’s Fraternal Order of the Eagles Auxiliary #25. While Silas Sr. played the piano for the club, he was “black balled” until he was finally allowed to join the organization in the 1950s. According to Si, it wasn’t until much later that The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks Lodge #431 permitted Si Sr. to join their order.
“It took them a long time to let anybody in,” Si said.
Eventually, Si Sr. served as Eagles president. He and his wife marshalled the Independence Day parade some time in the 1990s.
Sheryl and Si were honored to head this year’s parade and love the town of Skagway. They have no plans to move to a warmer climate for retirement.
“The place gets you,” Sheryl said.
“It’s just my home,” Si added.