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“Why do we still have an elementary school named after a pedophile?” That was the question posed to me by a number of people as I campaigned for the school board in 2014. Dubious, I began to research Badger Road Elementary’s namesake, Harry Badger.
In fact, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Harry Badger’s conviction for raping a 10 year old Fairbanks girl. Judge Charles Bunnell convicted him of three counts of sexual assault on a child, specifically for raping V.S. when he was 46 and she was 10.
Badger had already lived quite a life by 1916. He and his family fled their home near the Little Bighorn River when Custer’s army was slaughtered nearby. After wielding an axe as a lumberjack in Minnesota, he hauled his kit over the Chilkoot Pass to work the Klondike before eventually settling in Fairbanks in 1906. Badger may have come to Fairbanks for gold but made his fortune farming the Interior’s first cultivated strawberries. Once established in the community, he served as a respected official, and the newspapers report that he “knew the laws of the country as well as, or better than, the ordinary man of affairs.”
Given Badger’s position in the community and the licentious charges, Fairbanksans packed the courtroom for his trial, only to gasp at his immediate guilty plea.
While the sexual assault of a child wasn’t a foreign concept in Fairbanks in 1916, pedophilia was, and a French expert was used to explain that the affliction was a “mental disorder” and not “criminal intentions.” Badger’s attorney summed up his client at sentencing , explaining that “it was a disease with Mr. Badger, which no amount of imprisonment or punishment would remedy, but that it would have to be met by science.” The prosecutor agreed that Badger shouldn’t go to jail, but it’s worth noting that he admitted that Badger was his good friend and that he couldn’t bear the thought of him incarcerated. In the end Bunnell sentenced Badger to a $250 fine on count one, a $500 fine on count two, and six months in jail on the third.
This is not a situation where a shocking, antiquated result can be dismissed because “things must have been different back then.” At the same time Badger was sentenced, the court sentenced an Alaska Native man to 10 years in jail for the same crime. Fairbanksans in 1916 considered Badger’s sentence incredibly lenient. Badger’s light punishment was an outrage then, and the newspaper stated, “the assault on small girls—the mothers of later years—is repulsive to every man with red blood in his veins.”
Little is written about Badger immediately after 1916, but by 1930 all seems to have been forgotten. The Fairbanks schools invited him to spend time with schoolchildren, regaling them with tales of the Old West and pioneer Alaska. By 1943 the Newsminer hailed him as the “Strawberry King.” In 1960, the Newsminer published a retrospective of his life, omitting the sordid details of 1916. Badger never married or had children and died at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home at the age of 96 in 1965; his Newsminer obituary reads like an adventure tale but, once again, leaves out his criminal history.
Although not nearly as prominent as Badger, his victim V.S. is reminiscent of local children today. She ran in footraces sponsored by the Fairbanks schools and her name appears in the newspaper for academic achievements in the years before Badger raped her. She disappears from the public record after the events of 1916.
History is replete with revered figures with imperfect morals, but emblazoning a local elementary school with the name of our community’s founding pedophile is wrong. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District prohibits naming schools after anyone with a criminal record, but that policy came into effect well after Badger Road Elementary received its name. As a school board, we are going to look at this issue and begin a community discussion about it at our next work session on September 19th. A community meeting at Badger Road Elementary will follow, and I encourage you to add your voice to these conversations.
If you would like to look at articles about Badger’s trial and sentencing, life, and obituary, please follow the attached link: https://www.k12northstar.org/BadgerName
Michael O’Brien is the Vice President of the FNSBSD School Board. He would like to thank Michael Carey, Dermot Cole, Karen Erickson, and Chris Allen for their help researching this article.