• Annual Friends of the Library award lifelong learning on Saturday at 7 p.m.
By Naomi Klouda
Ken Castner couldn’t be happier with his latest recognition naming him Lifelong Learner by Friends of the Homer Library.
“This award has pleased me so much. If there an accolade that’s so meaningful to me in this town, it’s that one,” Castner said.
Ethan Kizzia, a senior at Homer High School, was recognized as this year’s Youth Learner by the Friends.
Castner works as the investment manager for the Homer Foundation, a position he’s held for over 20 years. He’s described as a consummate autodidact, which means he’s largely self taught.
Castner joins a long line of venerable winners of the Life Long Learning award starting with Daisy Lee Bitter in 2009, Dr. Walter Johnson in 2010, Dick Griffin in 2011, and Carmen Field in 2012.
The Youth Learner award goes to young people who demonstrate learning as a passion, shares that knowledge with others and exhibits creativity.
Kizzia’s balance of his academic learning, experiential learning, and inquisitive nature about the world stand out. He follows in the footsteps of fellow Youth Learner Award winners Adi Jo Davis and Mallory Drover.
At the Celebration of Lifelong Learning event at 7 p.m. Saturday at the library, both Castner and Kizzia will be honored and give brief talks. Nina Kemppel is the keynote speaker for the event.
Kemppel is a four-time Olympian, nine-time Mount Marathon Winner, and now the CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum. She was on the 2012 London Olympics Board of Directors of the United States Olympic Committee and has served as a business consultant to Fortune 500 companies.
The event will include instrumental music by The Fiddleliterates, cuisine by Maura’s Café and Fine Catering, and the Tree of Learning Trivia Contest officiated by Kathleen Gustafson. A silent auction, as well as ticket sales, will benefit the Friends of the Homer Library which provides programs and support services for the Homer Public Library.
Castner’s community roots run deep. He moved to Homer in 1973 with Nancy Lord, whom he had met at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. He had grown up north of Boston and at the age of 13 began making his first Stock Market investments by buying three shares of Harsco Steel stock that paid a dividend of 75 cents a share. He used his paper route money. After graduating from high school, he spent a year traveling across western Africa on a camel then attended two years of college.
Castner’s move to Alaska followed his natural inquisitiveness to know places and a different kind of learning experience than college provides.
“What that trip did for me, that year in Africa, is how I came to thinking about things differently,” he recalled. “I came back, grabbed Nancy and came to Alaska.”
In Homer, he and Nancy became small business owners, starting “Quiet Sports.” He also worked for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute Volcano observatory and then launched a long tenure at each of the local schools beginning with Paul Banks Elementary as a Title 1 tutor.
“I spent two years (at Paul Banks) with the kids. I ate all my lunches with them. I went to recess with them. We had Chess Club and a New York Times Crossword, (team)” Castner said.
As a mentor to students, Castner was delving into the process of teaching self-discovery and different ways to approach learning. He would continue the mentoring role as he worked on the annual Nutcracker Faire for 26 years which draws in about 75 young people.
His work on the Mariner Theatre launched him into that phase of life. It was built in 1989 as a Project ‘80s public facility and though part of the new high school, wasn’t completed when school construction finished. Castner joined Lance Petersen’s class on Technical Theater, which was a means to finish construction. From then on, he was building big technical sets, many of them used year after year in the Nutcracker, which evolved because the town had a venue to produce it.
Most all the projects Castner took on in the past four decades of Homer life are big, complicated endeavors. He sat on the city’s Water-Sewer Rate Task Force when the first rate structure was implemented and he came back this year to help again. He wakes each day at 5 a.m. to check the New York Stock Exchange in his role as investment manager for Homer Foundation.
“That’s a lot easier than it used to be before the Internet,” he said. By now, Castner has mastered the art of investment so that the foundation exceeds its goals each year. Last year, the foundation gave out $400,000 to community nonprofits.
“I don’t mind putting that effort into it. What a life of reward it has been. I have a great life,” he said. “Sinking $400,000 into the Homer economy feels great.”
As a Lifelong Learner, Castner said the knack of enjoying contemplative actions is an appreciation of how thoughts lead to facts and facts to more learning.
“My lifelong learning is around things not put off and because this has become a habit, I research immediately,” he said. “I spend a lot of time thinking. Some who can exercise their mind that way is never bored.”
This year’s pairing of Ethan Kizzia with Ken Castner is another happy coincidence. Castner and Lord are close friends with Ethan’s dad, journalist and author Tom Kizzia, since their days at Hampshire College.
“That just pleases me beyond words. I’ve watched Ethan grow up. I’ve known him his whole life,” Castner said. “Ethan has a lot of interests. He has the capability of being the next generation’s Renaissance man.”
Kizzia, born and raised in Homer, is lauded for excellence in a broad variety of subjects: he is in advanced placement literature and calculous. He’s taken advanced biology and physics. He’s also excelled on the soccer field and in the hockey rink.
“I like all kinds of subjects. I read fiction but also non-fiction. And I do tend to lean toward science,” he said.
Kizzia said his thinking is influenced by a number of experiences, among them attendance at a California camp program he joined each year where he was mentored by others. It’s a camp for young people who lost parents to cancer, as young Kizzia did of his mother, Sally. Camp Kesem mentors are college students.
“That experience made me want to turn around and share that in Homer and Outside through mentoring,” he said.
He joined Big Brothers-Big Sisters and became a mentor to a West Homer student. There, he tutors the “little brother” in math and spends time with him at recess. He also is in the Homer High peer mentoring program, helping a freshman with academics to help smooth the transition to high school.
Kizzia has also been deeply influenced by wilderness hiking, mountain skiing and a trip through the Himilayan Mountains for a month in his freshman year.
“I met the most amazing people, compassionate people,” he said.
Kizzia has college applications out and isn’t sure where he will be in the fall. He plans to feel his way through course subjects to help figure out what he would like to do as a profession.
Given his background, he’s got a lot of options.
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