Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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On the trailside, a sign of a lonesome life

Trailside cross: A cross along the Coastal Trail near Westchester Lagoon reads "Nora Jean York, 1951-2009, ALONE" on the bottom hand written sign. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)Trailside cross: A cross along the Coastal Trail near Westchester Lagoon reads "Nora Jean York, 1951-2009, ALONE" on the bottom hand written sign. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)

You could miss the worn cross along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, just on the other side of the tunnel near Westchester Lagoon. I did for years even though it's on my running route.

It sits at the head of a small rock-covered mound on the other side of a chain-link fence near a city sewer building. It carries three names. The first two seem like pets: "Missy, 1977-1992, Gone but not forgotten;" "Missy Too, 1996-2009, a special baby, RIP."

The last is different. It says "Nora Jean York, 1951-2009," written in permanent marker. Underneath that, it says, "ALONE."

I visited the cross six weeks ago on a day when thick fog hung over the inlet. I could tell someone had been there recently. A daisy had been placed on the mound.

Later that day, I searched for an obituary for Nora Jean York but found none. I tried a couple of phone numbers but they didn't work. I put her name in a public records database. Little came up except a name change record from 1993. That wouldn't have been a big deal except Nora Jean York used to have a male name, Johnnie Uhl. It appeared she was born a man, but some time in the early '90s began living as a woman.

Shortly after the name change, York wrote a couple letters to the editor on the issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians. A Google search showed her as a contact for an old support group for transgender people called the Berdache Society. I made some calls to transgender women I knew. They put me in touch with other women who remembered her.

The women told me they hadn't seen York in years and weren't sure if she was still alive. They said she had worked at an auto supply store. She had a companion, a man in a wheelchair, who they thought became disabled in a war. The couple lived for a while in East Anchorage, off Tudor. She was very opinionated, they remembered. That was one of the reasons the Berdache Society fizzled. Other members preferred to be more low key.

"She could be a little on the volatile side," one of them told me.

She was devoted to her relationship, they said. She was an excellent housekeeper. She was very fond of her dog, a Boston Terrier.

They also remembered that she had once been married.

It was true. When York was Uhl, he was married to a woman named Nancy. I reached her in Washington. They had been divorced for many years, she said. She hadn't heard that her ex-husband was living as a woman, but when I told her, she said it made sense.

They were married when they were young, she said, and by the early '90s, when they were living in Anchorage, she said she had fallen out of love. She told me her ex-husband had a problem with alcohol. He didn't drive and used to ride his bike to work on the Coastal Trail. They had a Boston Terrier named Missy. She remembered the dog had died. She said he told her he buried it along the trail.

Their split was emotional for him, she said. But things didn't end terribly. They had dinner before she left Anchorage after their separation. Years later, a letter came to her parents' house. Nora Jean York was the name above the return address. It never made it to her, but she always suspected it was from her ex-husband. She wondered on the phone if he had written to tell her he had made the transition from male to female.

She listed some family I might try to find. She didn't know where they lived now. I e-mailed her a picture of the Coastal Trail cross. Did I know, she asked, if Nora Jean York was still alive? I told her I didn't. But the year of death on the cross, 2009, didn't seem like a good sign.

York wasn't yet dead that day we talked. But Saturday, a little more than a week after our conversation, she would be in the news, shot to death by Alaska State Troopers after a standoff outside of the Wasilla home she shared with a man in wheelchair. Reports would say she threatened him while he was on the phone with dispatchers, talking about "suicide by cop." People in the comments section on the Daily News Web site, hours after the story was posted, would bash her for "pretending to be a woman."

After work the day I talked to Nancy, I ran by the cross. The rain and wind had weathered it. I searched for the letters of the name Nora Jean York. But they had mostly disappeared. All I could read was the word "ALONE."


Find the news story about Nora Jean York's death here .

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