Ben Esch, retired Alaska Superior Court Judge in Nome, died on April 25, 2016 in Seattle, Washington while battling a rare form of leukemia. He was 71.
Judge Esch was born January 4, 1945 to Robert and Ida Esch in Washington, Illinois. He graduated from MacMurrary College in Jacksonville, IL; he received his law degree from Arizona State University. After graduation, he moved to Anchorage where he worked for the Public Defender Agency.
Judge Esch was appointed to the Superior Court in Nome in February, 1996 by Governor Tony Knowles; he retired from the bench February 1, 2013. He served the Nome court longer than any previous judge since the Nome court was established in 1900.
He served as Presiding Judge in the Second Judicial District for many years, was a member of the Alaska Judicial Conduct Commission, including a term as chair. After retiring, Judge Esch served as a pro tem judge and as mentor judge to the District Magistrate Judges. He brought to the court a heightened sensitivity to cross cultural concerns and was well respected in the community and region.
He was always active in his community. Previous to his judgeship, he was a long time board member of Akeela House and served on state boards and councils related to alcohol and drug abuse.
In Nome, among other dedications, he was advisor to the Nome Youth Court, a Grand Officer in the Grand Igloo of the Pioneers of Alaska and served terms as an officer in Pioneer Igloo #1, including as president. Also, during all his years in Nome, he could be seen as a timer at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race wearing his signature polar bear hat and gloves as he checked in the mushers.
Ben Esch was a loving partner and spouse. He was a patient and supportive father who always came through for his children and their friends, mostly giving sage advice and wake up calls to responsibility. Although he was a very private person, he enjoyed getting together with his friends in Nome and Anchorage. He was especially proud to have purchased a camp. He said “Now, we’re Real Nomeites!” There, he wired the cabin himself but, of course, had his job certified by Susan Wagner, friend and electrician. He updated the cabin in every way possible and was so happy to have a peaceful place to relax away from phones. He especially enjoyed hosting his annual Raft Race Party during Solstice weekend acting as master griller and chief/director pulling sodden people out of the river to warm up, eat a bit and venture on.
Ben Esch did not laugh readily but enjoyed a good practical joke, mostly played on his spouse and law clerks. To his clerks he was known as “the stealth judge”. Like a ninja, he had a practice of walking silently in or up to a clerk and wait till he was noticed, making them jump. He did the same at home. He liked word play and frequently made statements out of the blue, which, until caught seconds or minutes later, pleased him. He liked Suduko and the NY Times Sunday crosswords. He was a voracious reader of everything except trash novels.
As a judge, Ben Esch was a compassionate jurist. He knew and remembered family ties and responsibilities in the region; he knew how to pronounce the names of people in his court. He respected the region’s culture but also the necessities to protect individuals as well as the communities from which people came. Recognition of those qualities were in evidence at his retirement event in 2013.
Since 1983, Judge Esch and his spouse traveled to visit family but especially to their “home away from home”, a small village in Mexico. After he retired, they were able to spend more than a week or two there; after retirement, they spent three months welcoming family and friends to their apartment, sharing their space, kitchen, and favorite eating places in the village. He also made a point to visit relatives on both sides of the family and long time friends like his college buddy Victor Larson.
Ben Esch was a happy, generous and positive person with a special sense of humor. He could not be sent to the store for milk and be assured he would be home with it in 30 minutes. His sparkling blue eyes and broad smile were known to all. He loved living in Nome and vowed he’d never leave. And he will not.
Ben Esch is survived by his partner and spouse Jana Varrati, by sons Peter Esch (Tasha) and Nick Varrati (Tammy), by his daughter Gianna Varrati, and by his brother Fred Esch (Sarajo) and by brother-in-law, Stephen Hanig (Tamara) He had four beloved grandchildren: Dylan and Isabella Simmons, Teagan Varrati and Kyle Jackson. He was preceded in death by his parents and by son Christian Esch.
Ben Esch was a Good Man.
Memorial Services were held in Anchorage on August 11 at the Quarter Deck in the Captain Cook Hotel from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and are scheduled to be held in Nome on August 13 at Old St. Joe’s Hall from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to Alaska Legal Services 1016 W 6th Ave, Suite 200, Anchorage, AK 99501 or to ICANS, PO Box 456, Nome, AK 99762.