Honesty. Hard work. Caring for others. Giving back. These core values guided my father at home, at the bank he led, and at his last big investment, Rasmuson Foundation.
As the Foundation turns 65 and I turn 80, the values of my family remain ingrained in an organization that has grown far beyond what the founders — my father and grandmother — imagined. My grandmother was Jenny Olson, a young Swedish missionary who arrived in Yakutat in 1901. My sisters and I remember her quiet nature, how she enjoyed gardening, playing guitar and making treats like strawberry shortcake. E.A. Rasmuson, a Swedish teacher, came a few years later. Within months of meeting, they married. He became a lawyer, a territorial commissioner, a banker.
In 1955, Jenny Olson wanted to honor her late husband — and give back to the state that had given the family so much. She seeded her new foundation with $3,000. My father, Elmer Rasmuson, who took over the National Bank of Alaska from my grandfather, was the Foundation’s first board president. The Foundation’s first grant was $125 for a motion picture projector. My grandmother gave the rest of the $300 cost as a personal gift. Small grants were the norm in those early years.
From that modest start, we built a foundation focused on Alaska. We give away a half million dollars on average every week. We still believe in the Alaska tradition of neighbors helping neighbors but also know that big issues call for a big response. So, we take bold steps to address challenges such as alcoholism, homelessness and recently, a $2 million response to the economic upheaval and health crisis of coronavirus.
Even when it is hard, even when it is unnerving, even when conventional wisdom says it’s hopeless, we want to join others to build a better way and help those who show up every day to do this demanding work.
In 2019, during the State of Alaska budget crisis, Foundation board members and our CEO put themselves out front on public policy. I advocated for building up a strong Alaska, not tearing it apart. In Juneau, our team pushed to overturn vetoes and restore money for services that we co-fund to help those experiencing homelessness. At the same time, we were fully launching our own initiative to solve homelessness.
Our way is different. Like Dad said, “You can’t build a state with a hatchet.”
In 1955, the world was changing fast. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Disneyland opened and so did the first McDonald’s. Alaska was a territory four years shy of statehood with a population of just 220,000. I was a teenager just finding my way.
Now I represent the older generation. I look to my daughters, my nephews and eventually their children to do their best with our family foundation, to love it the way I have. Because like Jenny and E.A. and Elmer always knew, there’s nothing better than giving back.