There were far more tears from laughter than sorrow at a memorial for former Kenai City Manager Rick Koch on Thursday night.
The Kenai Senior Center was filled and most were in their best Koch-inspired outfits: cargo shorts, socks, sandals and a wild variety of Hawaiian shirts. Friends, neighbors and colleagues took turns sharing stories about Koch, who died in a motorcycle accident June 18 on the Dalton Highway south of Livengood. For his service as city manager for the past 10 years, and for several other contributions across the state before that, Gov. Bill Walker wrote a letter of commendation.
“Rick made significant contributions to the state of Alaska throughout his lifetime as an engineer, project manager, public servant, a father and a friend to many. He embraced life, making the most of opportunity and demonstrated the Alaska spirit through his commitments to improving his community and serving others.”
Koch was born in Japan in 1956 where his father was serving in the Air Force. The family was stationed at Elmendorf in 1970 and Rick graduated from Service High School in 1974 before attending college at Boise State, George Washington University and the University of Alaska. As a civil engineer he worked across the state in various roles, with the Department of Transportation, the North Slope Borough, city of Palmer and, finally, the city of Kenai. In addition, he put his efforts into community events and projects ranging from an annual one-pitch softball tournament in Talkeetna, which will now carry his and his father Glenn’s name, to lobbying legislators for funding for the turf field at Kenai Central High School, to many years helping organize the Iditarod. He was, in fact, the longest-serving president of the Iditarod’s board of directors. Stan Hooley is the longtime CEO of the famous sled dog race, and he had a couple stories from busting trail with Rick back in the day.
“Rick was a part of our trail-breaking crew for many, many years. He loved that responsibility as a part of the race. As a part of that responsibility, you’re on a snowmachine for at least two weeks. You’re out in front of the teams, breaking trail, trimming brush, putting lath on the trail to make it navigable. So, 14 days, no shower, no change of socks, you’re wearing bunny boots and I think most of us understand part of what that means when you get to Nome a little while later. And this was back when Rick still enjoyed a good night on the town. So, he spends two weeks on the trail. He gets to Nome. He spends a couple nights out on the town without getting any sleep at all, still hasn’t showered, by the way. Still hasn’t changed socks. Finally, he decides it’s time to go to bed and sleep it off. And he had rented a bunk in a house on Front Street … so he went to sleep, in his clothes. About a day later, he wakes up and hears this rustling sound at the end of his legs. He sits up a little further and he looks down and there’s a trash bag duct taped to each one of his legs. And an elderly race face, a woman who had traveled to Nome to watch the end of the race, leaning over him saying, “I’m so sorry, but your feet smelled really bad.”
A number of public officials offered remembrances Thursday night, as did friends and neighbors. Dale Sandahl counts himself as both. He met Rick about 10 years ago when he was helping Cliff Massie go through the resumes for the city manager’s job. They became neighbors when Massie passed away and Rick bought his house next door. That’s also when he met Rick’s son, Alex.
“I found out how many people Alex actually knows. I’ve lived here about 50 years, Alex has been around here about 10 years and he’s introducing me to all these people. But we would end up taking side trips after we’d leave the football field, and I went into parts of Kenai I’d never been in before and Rick was always promoting Kenai — what was going here, what going to happen there, what needed to happen over here. I just listened and learned from Rick and then, after that, it would be reviewed by Alex. I’m going to miss my neighbor a lot, but Alex will (help) fill the void.”
Rick Koch is survived by his son Alex, a sister, Cynthia Koch, Alex’s mother, Jackie Kotter, of Wasilla, a bulldog named George and a corgi mix named Max. He was 60 years old.