Elmer Rasmuson's use of wealth, talents made lasting changes

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2000

Lori EvansExecutive Editor

"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."

-- Woodrow Wilson

Alaska has lost one of its most dedicated and generous citizens.

Elmer Rasmuson, who died Friday, Dec. 1, at the age of 91, was a giant of a man whose legacy will live on in Alaska, and whose good deeds will benefit generations to come. This pioneer business, civic and political leader made a lasting imprint on the cultural and economic life of this state; the way he lived his life, in service to others, is a model for all Alaskans.

The Harvard-educated Rasmuson was at once a careful businessman, conscientious leader and wise counselor to Alaskan decision-makers, showing generosity and integrity in all facets of his life. Although he grew Alaska's most prosperous bank, the National Bank of Alaska, into one of the highest capitalized and most admired financial institutions in the country, Rasmuson wasn't content to just make money for the sake of having wealth -- although he had an undeniable talent for business success. He believed in encouraging Alaska's cultural health and, through a steady stream of gifts to museums, libraries, educational and research organizations, he made cultural resources available to all.

In fact, Rasmuson became one of the most noted philanthropists in the United States -- but Alaskans were the greatest beneficiaries. He made -- then gave away -- his fortune, last year transferring $50 million in stock in the National Bank of Alaska to the Anchorage Museum Foundation for expansion of the museum. At the same time, he donated $40 million in stock to the Rasmuson Foundation, so his legacy of giving will continue for nonprofit organizations in the state.

Rasmuson, who was born in Yakutat in 1909, also can be credited with much of the success of the Alaska Permanent Fund. As the first chairman of the board of the fund's board of trustees, Rasmuson put his intellectual prowess to work to study and make prudent investments for Alaskans' public savings account, then in its infancy. He was a major force in ensuring that the permanent fund was inflation-proofed to avoid the fiasco that Alberta, Canada, experienced when it didn't take such precautions with its similarly structured oil-boom fund.

His sophisticated business sense made him a formidable player on the financial scene, but he wanted Alaska to prosper as a whole, and so provided counsel to governors, legislators and senators about how to best manage Alaska's wealth opportunities. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens once quoted Rasmuson telling him, "Don't worry too much about the cities. Whatever you invest in the rural area will increase the economy of our cities."

Indeed, he recognized that rural areas and Native issues were important to the state's well-being. Rasmuson was an early supporter of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee not long after he had completed his term as mayor of Anchorage.

"I believe I can make my best contribution ... by emphasizing the value that will accrue to all Alaskans by a prompt and generous settlement of the Native land claims," he told the U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. "The benefit is from both a material and human standpoint." He went on to eloquently state that in order for Native Alaskans to have full participation in Alaska society, they needed to "have the confidence of their own wealth and the practice of their own management."

As a long-time member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, for which he served a three-year stint as president, Rasmuson continued his tireless efforts to improve educational opportunities for all Alaskans. His affection for libraries and museums extended beyond Alaska; he also served on the board of directors for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and helped establish the National Museum of Natural History Arctic Studies Center. In recent years he sought to preserve rare Alaska movies, by creating the Alaska Film Archives at the Rasmuson Library.

The list of his contributions to the state goes on. We cannot imagine what Alaska would have been like without the vision, talents and generosity of Elmer Rasmuson, who exemplified the ideal that it's not what money you make in this world that is important, but what you do with it that counts. His service and leadership will be missed.

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