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All of those titles are well applied to Dr. Walter A. Soboleff, Sr. However, of all the honorifics well applied to Soboleff, the one now in focus is that of Master Mason.
Soboleff, born Nov. 14, 1908 in Killisnoo to a Tlingit mother, spent most of his life in Southeast Alaska. He moved to Sitka at age 5 to attend boarding school, and later Sheldon Jackson School. After attending the University of Dubuque in Iowa, he returned to Southeast in 1940 to serve as minister of Juneau’s Memorial Presbyterian Church.
He began his ministry humbly. Three people attended his first service as pastor, it being in the middle of June with most parishioners out fishing.
Those numbers quickly grew, as his sermons began to go out throughout Southeast and into Canada via radio. His parish included not only Alaska Natives, but also Anglos, those of Russian descent, and members of all of the Capital City’s racial and ethnic groups.
Though this inclusionary spirit was typical of Soboleff, it was not the norm for Alaska — or the United States — where segregation was the unfortunate norm. He and his Haida wife, Genevieve, struggled to find a landlord who would rent to Indians. They also lived under and around signs that read “No Natives.”
With his increasing stature in Juneau and Alaska, Soboleff became a quiet advocate in the civil rights battle.
“It’s more than one measure,” Soboleff said of the civil rights movement. “It’s the people working together to make a better world.
“We didn’t say we would do this and you will do that. It didn’t work that way. It was a natural occurrence.
“We just gave the Christian message. The Christian message is love your fellow folk. For God is love.”
He also worked tirelessly for Native causes, serving on the Sealaska Corp. Board of Directors, founding the Native Studies department at the University of Alaska and completing seven terms as president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
The ANB wasn’t Soboleff’s only membership in a fraternal body. He joined Mt. Juneau Lodge No. 147, and later the Juneau-Douglas Shrine Club, the Juneau Valley of the Scottish Rite and the Anchorage York Rite. His membership in Masonic institutions was filled with distinction and honor. The members of Mt. Juneau elected to name Soboleff an honorary Master of that Lodge, making him one of only seven men so honored in its history, the history of Gastineaux Lodge No. 124 (the Masonic Lodge that kicked off Masonry in the Capital City when it formed in 1902), and their successor Lodge, Mt. Juneau-Gastineaux Lodge No. 21.
He also received the 33rd, or highest, degree of Scottish Rite Masonry. Soboleff took particular pleasure in teaching several of the degrees to new members of the Scottish Rite, and his degree lectures were eventually recorded, so future generations could learn from him as well.
Soboleff died on May 22, 2011 in Juneau at 102 years old. He was preceded in death in 1986 by his first wife, Genevieve, his second wife Stella Alice Atkinson, whom he married in 1999, and his sisters Ruby (Larry) Jackson and Martha Bradley. He was survived by his daughter Janet (Ted) Burke; sons Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross (Jane Lindsey) Soboleff; stepdaughter Priscilla (Ed) Peele; stepson Thomas L. Atkinson, Jr. and other family members.