When Swedish immigrants Jenny Olson and Edward Anton Rasmuson arrived in Yakutat at the dawn of the 20th century, no one could have imagined the extraordinary impact they and their descendants would have on Alaska. They came to Alaska separately: she in 1901 at 21 as a missionary for the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America; he three years later at 22 to teach in the school for Tlingit children. Within months of meeting, they were married.
While in Yakutat, E.A. studied law through a correspondence course, eventually passing the bar examination for the Territory. The family moved to Skagway in 1916 when E.A. became U.S. Commissioner for that city.
E.A. Rasmuson assumed leadership of the Bank of Alaska in 1918 in the midst of the financial disruption caused by World War I. Although he had no banking experience, he accepted the challenge of reviving a bank in serious financial trouble. E.A. never lost his faith in the Bank of Alaska, or the territory it served. Jenny Rasmuson served on the board of directors of the growing bank and shared her husband’s dreams for Alaska.
E.A. and Jenny Rasmuson loved Alaska. He was a person of wide-ranging interests and with a personal commitment to better the lives of fellow Alaskans. A lawyer, banker, mayor, father, commissioner and developer, he was also a hunter, fisherman, aviator, and hiker. Together with Jenny – mother, missionary, teacher, civic leader – the Rasmusons promoted the growth of the Territory and worked to improve the quality of life and shape the territory’s history and future.
E.A. Rasmuson died in 1949 and left the bank to his son, Elmer.
Jenny Olson Rasmuson created Rasmuson Foundation in May of 1955 to honor her late husband.
The Rasmusons’ son, Elmer, grew National Bank of Alaska from a community bank to a statewide force for progress in the Territory. He was an advocate for statehood, believing Alaska’s economic sustainability was tied to local control of its natural resources. Fishery management became a lifelong interest and he served as chair of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and endowed the Rasmuson Fisheries Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Rasmuson Chair of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Elmer was involved in the Foundation from its modest beginnings (the first Foundation grant was $125 to a Presbyterian church for a “motion picture projector”) and became the driving force behind its growth. When Elmer died in December 2000 at age 91, he left his personal fortune of more than $400 million to charity, much of it to the family foundation.
Elmer’s son Ed assumed management of the bank as chairman in 1985, building it into the state’s largest financial institution supported by strong branches throughout Alaska. In the year before his father’s death, Ed negotiated a highly successful sale of the bank to Wells Fargo. The proceeds of that sale became the bulk of the Foundation’s endowed assets.
Ed Rasmuson, as chair of the Board of Directors, has shepherded the Foundation into its modern era. He inherited his father’s interest in fisheries, the Alaska outdoors, and a personal commitment to make a difference in Alaska. Ed has dedicated much of his adult life to improving the quality of higher education and is the only Alaskan to serve as a regent of the University of Alaska, Alaska Pacific University, and Sheldon Jackson College.
Today Rasmuson Foundation is guided by third and fourth generation Rasmusons: Ed, his siblings Judy and Lile, wife Cathryn, and grandchildren Jay Gibbons, Adam Gibbons and Natasha von Imhof, serve on the Foundation’s 14-member Board of Directors with six public members.
Jenny and Elmer’s vision for the Foundation was to support projects of lasting impact to benefit Alaskans, and the Foundation stays true to Jenny’s core beliefs in service, family, community, resource development and a deep love of the land. These values shape the foundation’s philosophy of giving to organizations that demonstrate a respect for the land and its people, for sustainable economic development, and for the enhancement of the arts and social services in Alaska.
It’s about giving back to a state that gives so much to everyone who lives here. It’s a tradition of investing in Alaska.
Explore the story of the Foundation in our 2019 Annual Letter to Alaska, celebrating our 65th year. Learn more through articles published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Anchorage Daily News.
Learn more about Elmer Rasmuson by visiting the Elmer Rasmuson: A Life of Service digital archive project managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Elmer E. Rasmuson Library or by reading an Anchorage Daily News tribute.