By Katy Beedle-Rice
Spring 2015 Alaska Catholic magazine
Dick and Debbie Fagnant of Juneau have some pretty fun wedding stories. For one, the bride wore green, and she and her gray-polyester-clad groom were both on hand to greet the guests as they arrived for the wedding Mass. Debbie remembers, “Walking down the aisle and seeing each other for the first time wasn’t the focus. It was the two of us greeting all of these people we loved and who had come to celebrate with us, and recognizing that they had been and would continue to be a part of our lives.”
The symbolism of enfolding family and friends into their lives has traveled with the couple ever since. Now approaching nearly four decades of marriage, they continue to live that message as leaders of the Family-to-Family program, helping families deal with mental illness.
“What has been found is that people with mental illness are the most successful in a recovery situation when they have family members who can support them.” Dick says. “If that isn’t in place, there is a much higher failure rate. People end up on the street, in jails, or in desperate situations.”
‘Ruined for Life’
Recalling their wedding day after 37 years of married life, Debbie has a word that comes to mind, “We were just sort of alternative.” Dick agrees with a chuckle, “That’s well-stated.”
Not surprisingly, their unique relationship began in a similarly “alternative” movement, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Dick explains, “In JVC there’s a saying, ‘You’re ruined for life.’ You realize that living a more simplistic life can bring you happiness. That service is important.” Debbie continues: “That you can think outside of yourself. That faith is a cornerstone of your life. And community. Those are the four principles of JVC (faith, simplicity, social justice, community). What the JVC did was, they named it, and once they named it, we claimed it.”
Serving as Jesuit Volunteers in the 1970s in St. Mary’s, a village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Dick and Debbie both worked as teachers as part of the JVC group that staffed the St. Mary’s Mission. Dick was a teacher for the Mission, which acted as a boarding school for surrounding high school students. Debbie taught in the local elementary school. Their time in St. Mary’s (three years for Debbie, and two for Dick, who took a year in the middle to earn his teaching credentials in Anchorage) seemed to set the trajectory for their marriage.
“Debbie and I look back at our St. Mary’s experience, particularly at the Yupik culture, (and) a piece of our heart is still there,” Dick explains. Debbie adds, “I think it’s where we really fell in love with teaching. There was an expectation, and we were happy with it, that we weren’t just work-hours teachers. It was a very small community and we were part of the community and we were welcome in everyone’s home and appreciated. We remember all the names of those kids that we taught. It was a wonderful time.”
From JVC to Juneau
Since leaving St. Mary’s in 1977 and getting married, the Fagnants have settled in Juneau, raised three children and fostered a niece, and put in a combined 65 years of teaching in the Juneau School District. Now, in their retirement, Debbie and Dick have found a new ministry to focus on: volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).