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Working Hard, Playing Hard

Professionals find fulfillment pursuing their avocations


Attorney and board member for the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, Blair Christensen helps release a snowy owl into the wild at Barrow recently. Assisting Christensen is Barrow Mayor Robert Harcharek.

©Jake Neher, KBRW Radio

Would you recognize your doctor behind that bass thumping out bluegrass music? Or your attorney in mud boots with binoculars around her neck following the winged and feathered creatures? How about your human resources executive blowing steadily into a double-reed instrument as notes of an etude soothe your ears? Maybe your landscape architect under the welding hood attaching things together that only a mad scientist would relate to each other? These are real scenarios for Alaska professionals at play.

What does a work week for one of them look like? For many, it’s long, focused and demanding—meetings, chasing business opportunities, dealing with employee issues, and always facing loads of papers that need attention. To leave work behind and either ease or refocus the mind onto another entire avenue is both restful and stimulating, according to Mary Tesch, senior vice president of administration for the Tatitlek Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation with a nationwide operation and hundreds of employees.

A member of the corporation’s executive management team, Tesch is responsible for human resources, records management, information technology, administration and safety. She also helps to train new managers and corporate leaders.

“Our executive management team works a lot of long hours during the week,” Tesch says. “We also travel a lot working with Tatitlek projects all over the Lower 48.”

Tesch says she’s also very involved with the Human Resources Certification Institute, which provides certification and accreditation to industry professionals, and is a past president of the Anchorage Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Even though Tesch spends long hours with her job, she says Tatitlek stresses work-life balance—so she also spends time playing oboe with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to working with Tatitlek, Tesch spent 20 years with Chugach Electric Association as the vice president of human resources, actively involved with employee relations and union negotiations. All during that time, her off-work passion was music.

“My undergraduate degree was in music performance,” Tesch says, but her first job was in HR at Children’s Hospital in Denver. After that, she went on to obtain her master’s degree in human resources management. Playing music, though, “is like a whole different side of a person that has nothing to do with work, and it gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction. It puts a balance in my life that’s important.”

Full Sail Band, including orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Schaab, brings rockin’ bluegrass music to folk festivals, weddings and a variety of sites around Alaska. From left: Bill Yeagle on the mandolin, Doug Shutte on the banjo, Schaab on the bass and Tony Elder on the guitar.

©Jacqui Yeagle


Surgical Instruments for String Instruments

Music is also a passion and an avocation for an Anchorage orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peter Schaab. Schaab is the bass player in Full Sail, a five-piece bluegrass band that plays at venues in Anchorage and at folk festivals around Alaska.

Picking up the big instrument about six years ago after rekindling his love of music at an Anchorage folk festival, Schaab began his bluegrass co-career by taking lessons in Anchorage.

“I found I really liked listening to the bass,” Schaab says. “I thought I might be able to accompany other people and have the pleasure of playing with a little less skill. It seems there’s usually a need for a bass player.”

After taking his lessons as far as his teacher, who was far more proficient at other instruments, thought they could go, his teacher pointed Schaab toward a music camp in Colorado Springs.

“The camp had an exceptional bass player,” Schaab says, “and I took lessons for about three or four hours every day for a week. I attended that camp twice before I joined a group.”

Schaab’s first attempt at playing with a band was with a group calling themselves 162 Bluegrass. There, he met Bill Yeagle, a mandolin player who has participated in several bluegrass bands in Anchorage.

“Bill gave me a little tutoring in bass and in singing, then six months later asked me to join his group. That was a year ago and I had to jump from knowing about five songs to memorizing about 75.”

Schaab’s medical practice consists of a week full of demanding days--usually at least two of those days performing surgery. Occasionally, he says, he’ll also work a weekend day. He’s had his own practice for the past 18 years, following three years on the Navajo reservation in Gallup, N.M., four years in an orthopedic residency in Albuquerque, and five years with the U.S. Public Health Service in Alaska.

Even with his busy work schedule, Schaab says there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t pick up his bass and play for 20 minutes to, sometimes, three hours.

“I like the sound of it and it’s using the doctor part of my brain to do something else. When you get a groove going with the music, it’s really fun. Playing gives you a new level of awareness and challenges your brain with something new,” Schaab says. “The other band members have been playing for about 25 years. I’m still the new guy.”


Soaring with Birds of Prey

The attorney in the mud boots—or maybe the hiking boots, depending on the weather—is Blair Christensen, a self-employed attorney who works with clients on a contract basis. If a firm needs help with specific projects, Christensen says she can step in and do research or handle whatever other legal jobs need doing. She’s done that in the past for a wide variety of clients, including firms handling civil, criminal, and labor and employment law; and for public defenders. Her average week would include a wide range of tasks.

“I may spend hours at the legal library reading documents, researching various legal issues, writing substantial memos, looking through files and—generally—burying myself in documents,” Christensen says. “I could be doing research for litigation or answering a question about a legal issue. It just runs the gamut.”

Before going into private practice, Christensen clerked for Judge Walter Carpeneti and worked in Anchorage and California. She earned her law degree from the University of California at Davis and passed the Alaska Bar in 2003, she says. UC Davis lies at the root of her love of all feathered things, particularly raptors. The School of Veterinary Medicine at the university is the home of the California Raptor Center, and Christensen became a regular at the center.

“I got interested in larger hunting birds,” she says, “and slowly got into birding. I’ve become an avid birder in Alaska.”

A former president of the Anchorage Audubon Society, Christensen now serves on the board of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

“Once you become interested in birds, you start to notice all the differences,” she says. “It becomes a passion. You notice the colors, the markings, how sharp their talons are and how beautifully they fly and hunt.”

At Bird TLC, Christensen spends the majority of her time on board work, but says she’s looking forward to the day when she’s no longer on the board and can participate in the program that takes birds from the center into schools to educate students.

“My mother took us on many wildlife excursions when I was young,” she says, “and it sparked a real interest. To do the same for another young child would be just fabulous.

“Birding allows me to educate myself on something completely different from my chosen profession. It reminds you of your place in the world and lets you know there’s so much more to learn. It lets me explore another whole facet of myself.

“There’s a tendency in people to let our work become all encompassing. For me, birding reminds me that I’m not my job and not to get bogged down.”


Focusing on Art

Landscape architect Dwayne Adams, a principal and director of Planning and Landscape Architecture with USKH Inc., a multi-discipline design firm in Alaska, has worked in his field for nearly 40 years. After graduating from Texas A&M, Adams served in the U.S. Air Force for seven years, three of them at Elmendorf Air Force Base. He’s been an avid Alaskan ever since, having owned the firm Land Design North with a partner for 20 years.

Adams says his work week is usually 40 to 50 hours long, dealing with staff or projects and addressing client issues.

“I don’t get to mess around with the creative as much as I used to,” Adams says. “That, now, belongs to others.”

Instead, Adams looks to three creative pursuits outside of his profession—painting, poetry and, as Adams phrases it, “creating yard art.”

“Painting is a real puzzle,” Adams says. “Watercolors in particular: First, it’s a very unforgiving medium, so it demands complete attention. You have to lay the colors down in certain ways and you have to understand that when you start--it has to be the right color at the right time or you lose the ability to control the painting. When I’m painting, the rest of the world just goes away, so it’s very liberating.”

Adams says he’s painted seriously for about eight years and has twice been chosen to participate in the Alaska Watercolor Society’s juried art show. He’s also had a First Friday showing.

Yard art offers Adams some of the same challenges as painting does, he says. “If you’re working with a welding bead, you have to be able to manipulate it so you have to stay focused.”

Although Adams adds that he wouldn’t call himself a welder, he agrees that he does “adhere metal under high temperatures.”

“The fun of creating yard art,” he says, “is taking a material and abstracting that to create something that is completely alien to its current form. It’s in looking at a piece and seeing what it could become, he says.

“Besides, all the smoke and fire, sparks and noise is a huge testosterone rush,” he laughs. “I feel like I’m Thor!”

With all the powers the legendary Thor had, however, the creation of poetry wasn’t one of them. Adams also wedges time into his busy schedule to create with words as well as with paint and heat.

“I love playing with words,” he says, “taking an obscure meaning and stretching and working with it. Words are plastic; you can do things with them. I can lose myself in a poem or a watercolor for hours.”

As the old saw goes: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Many of today’s professionals are rounding out their working lives with very creative and meaningful avocations.

Adams says a friend sends him an annual gift of pears and apples. In return, he creates a poem. The above poem “Sweet Gifts of 2011” was in response to a recent gift.

Gail West is a freelance author living in Anchorage.

  This originally appeared in the April 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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