Longtime Juneau business owner and community figure Iris D. “Dee” Longenbaugh died at her Juneau home this past Friday, and word spread quickly.
Longenbaugh, who was 84, was the longtime owner of The Observatory in Juneau, serving as an involved and active community member even as her health declined in recent years. She became seen as a foremost expert on Alaska books and maps.
Longenbaugh’s daughter Betsy Longenbaugh said people have been sharing stories and memories with the family for the past few days. Betsy said news like this used to be spread through prayer circles, but when Sen. Dennis Egan called to offer his condolences this weekend, for example, he said he had seen the news on Twitter.
“The way folks have remembered her has been extremely comforting in time that’s been tough,” Betsy said, “and it’s also showing she had a pretty incredible life.”
Dee was born on a farm in Billings, Oklahoma, in 1933 and moved repeatedly in her youth because of her father’s work with oil companies. She ended up graduating high school and starting her life in New Mexico before meeting her husband George in college at Highlands University in Las Vegas.
They ended up moving from Baltimore to Sitka in 1963 when George, a surgeon, was stationed there with the Public Health Service. The move from the big city to the small one was bumpy for just a moment, Betsy remembered. They quickly learned that it was very out of place to wear dresses and white gloves to the grocery store in Sitka.
After that brief period, Betsy remembered, her parents took to Sitka easily. They bought a boat and spent their weekends on it.
“It was sort of an opportunity for them both to really expand on those small-town roots that they both loved so much,” Betsy said.
Dee took a deep interest in Russian-American history, being in Sitka, which eventually led to a love of books. She started Observatory Books in Sitka in 1977, picturing it as a shop that specialized in Alaskana books. She also was heavily involved in the community, helping to found the first mental health clinic in Sitka.
George died in 1985 in an accident on vacation in Mexico, and Dee spent a few years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before coming back to Southeast Alaska in 1992. She moved to Juneau to be closer to her daughters Betsy and Leslie, who had both settled in Juneau with children. Her sons Matt and John currently live in Washington and Oregon, respectively.
Dee opened another bookstore in Juneau, specializing both in books and maps and referring to it as The Observatory. It became a destination for tourists and locals alike, with many people sending her letters after their visits to tell her what a difference the shop had had on their vacation. One story of Dee lending “War and Peace” to a kayaker one summer stands out to Betsy.
Those words over the years proved meaningful to Dee and her family, and the stories and memories have come flooding back in recent days. Though Dee’s interactions with many people were brief, she somehow figured out a way to make a lasting impression on many who came to her store or met her in the community.
“She just made very deep connections with people,” Betsy said.
Share your Observatory stories with us
Do you have a story about the Observatory and/or Dee Longenbaugh that you would like to share? If so, email it to us at email@example.com in the next week, and the Empire will print them at a later date.
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Betsy Longenbaugh as Dee Longenbaugh’s sister on one reference. Betsy is Dee Longenbaugh’s daughter, not sister. The Empire regrets this error.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.