It All Begins In Yakutat
She was a cobbler’s daughter; he a carpenter’s son. Jenny Olson arrived in Yakutat in 1901 as a missionary, and Edward Anton “E.A.” Rasmuson, in 1904 as a teacher. They met that year in Alaska — not yet a territory — and married the next. The Swedish immigrants never imagined the extraordinary impact their descendants would have upon the history, economics, politics, heart and soul of Alaska.
Both became missionary teachers in the Tlingit village of Yakutat, its name derived from Yaakwdáat, “the place where canoes rest.” While there, E.A. studied law through correspondence and became a lawyer. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d switch careers.
In 1916, after more than 10 years in Yakutat and a detour to the Lower 48, the Rasmusons were back in the territory, first in Juneau then settling in Skagway, where E.A. became U.S. commissioner and set up a small-town law practice. One of his first clients was the then-newly organized Bank of Alaska. With no other banking experience, he assumed leadership of the sinking ship of a financial institution. The Klondike Gold Rush was long over and the financial turmoil of World War I was in full swing. Many Skagway businesses were boarded up and the bank’s vaults nearly empty.
Though an accidental banker, E.A. had a knack for it. Seventeen years after landing on Ellis Island with little money and even less English, this self-taught businessman not only rescued the bank, but rebuilt it into a thriving institution. Through stock acquisitions, eventually he owned it.
From father to son
While the Rasmusons’ daughter, Evangeline (Atwood), became a historian, advocate for statehood, accomplished hostess, and columnist and co-owner of the Anchorage Times, their son, Elmer, became a second-generation banker.
When E.A. died in 1949, he left the bank to Elmer, who took what would become the National Bank of Alaska from a community bank to the largest in the state. Elmer was a visionary with interests and talents that helped to develop Alaska from, as described in the Anchorage Daily News, “raw western territory to 21st-century Pacific player.” He served as Anchorage mayor after the devastating 1964 earthquake, was the first chairman of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. and helped build a system to manage ocean fisheries.
Foundation is born
To honor her late husband, with help from their son, Jenny created Rasmuson Foundation in May 1955 with a $3,000 endowment. The first grant was $125 for a church “motion picture projector.” Jenny paid the rest of the $300 cost herself. For decades, grants remained small.
Jenny died in 1966 and left most of her estate to the Foundation. Her grandson and Elmer’s son, Ed, became a third-generation banker and led the Foundation through its time of rapid change and growth. The year before his father’s death in 2000, Ed negotiated sale of the bank to Wells Fargo to focus on philanthropy. The bulk of the proceeds went into the Foundation’s endowment, launching a new level of giving.
Among Elmer Rasmuson’s many legacies is the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. He helped fund the 10,000-square-foot starter version in the mid ‘60s, and on his 90th birthday, he gave another $50 million for expansion — and $40 million to the Foundation.
Elmer and his wife, Mary Louise, left most of their estates — $440 million all told, on top of earlier gifts — to the Foundation. Guided by Ed and the next generation of Rasmusons, the Foundation transformed from small family foundation to become the state’s top private funder in areas from arts and culture to housing and health care.
The modern era
From its humble beginnings, the Foundation has grown into a philanthropy that, as Ed Rasmuson used to say, gives away a half million dollars every week.
Chairman Ed took the Foundation into the modern era, overseeing a dramatic growth in assets and the creation of initiatives that promote the health, well-being and creativity of Alaskans. He served as chairman from 2000 to 2021, then chairman emeritus until his death in early 2022 at age 81.
Over those 20-plus years, he steered a rapidly evolving philanthropic organization, making it the largest private funder in Alaska.
Ed backed bold initiatives like addressing homelessness, support for dental health aides in rural villages and the creation of community funds in cities and towns across the state.
He wanted Alaska nonprofits to know “we’ve got their backs.” For much of his tenure as Foundation chairman, his wife, Cathryn, was at his side as vice chair. Cathy — along with Lile Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson, Ed’s sisters — continues to serve on the board.
Now the next generation has stepped up to make their own mark. In 2021, Adam Gibbons — Elmer’s grandson and Ed’s nephew — became chair. Natasha von Imhof — one of Ed’s daughters — and Jay Gibbons — another of Elmer’s grandsons — joined the executive committee as vice chair and secretary/treasurer, respectively.
Together, family and community board members are writing the Foundation’s next chapter.