What Would Elmer Do?

Lile and Elmer Rasmuson are seen with his mother, Jenny Rasmuson, and their children, Judy, Lile and Ed, in this family photo from the 1950s.

For Rasmuson Foundation’s 65th year, we offer a rare inside view of not only our story, but an epic tale of an Alaska family. Siblings Ed Rasmuson, Lile Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson crafted a way to stay true to their father’s belief in hard work and giving back even as Alaska’s needs rapidly changed.

Their father, Elmer Rasmuson, grew up mainly in Skagway during the post-Gold Rush bust. He was prepped by his own father, E.A. Rasmuson, to take over the National Bank of Alaska. Another mentor left a big imprint too. “He got a lot of his training and his thoughts from a fellow by the name of Arthur Andersen,” Ed says. The Arthur Andersen, accounting giant. Andersen was famed for embracing the Scandinavian motto “think straight, talk straight” and as Ed says, “work straight.”

“In other words, you’ve got to be as honest as you can and you’ve got to think the problems out,” Ed says.

Elmer and his wife, Lile, settled in Anchorage during World War II with their two young children, Ed and his sister Lile. (Lile was named after their maternal grandmother, and their mother was also Lile.) Sister Judy came along later. They lived downtown in a small 600-square-foot house with an iffy furnace, then moved to a new home in Turnagain, which was considered the country. “We lived in the outdoors. Summer, winter, we really didn’t know the difference. You put on your galoshes in the spring and put on snow pants in the winter,” Lile says. In 1960, their mother died after a long fight with cancer.

Young siblings Lile, Judy and Ed Rasmuson have luck fishing at the family’s Lost Lake cabin across Cook Inlet, as seen in this family photo.

‘Don’t hide your talents under a bushel’

Their father was strict but also generous, traits that later materialized in the shaping of the Foundation. Elmer believed in neighbors helping neighbors but also in the resilience of individuals. “We would do with what we had and make it work. He always said that there’s room at the table for one more,” Lile says. When extra guests showed up, Ed remembers, we would just “cut the roast a little thinner.”

Elmer often spoke through parables and idioms. “He thought they were rules to live by,” Judy says. Some of his sayings define the way even now. “A mouse with one hole is soon caught.” Have alternative plans. “Don’t build a church for the Easter Sunday congregation.” At Rasmuson Foundation, an entire program was created to ensure right-sized buildings for nonprofit organizations. His favorite might have been “don’t hide your talents (or light) under a bushel.” Let your talents shine. Use what you have.

In 1961, Elmer, a widower, met Mary Louise Milligan, director of the Women’s Army Corps. They married the same year. A year later, Mary Louise retired from the Army and quickly took to her adopted state of Alaska. She served 45 years on the Rasmuson Foundation board.

Elmer’s children went their own ways. Lile Gibbons settled in Connecticut, where she served a dozen years in the state Legislature and on numerous boards. She and her husband, John, raised four children. Judy Rasmuson worked as a lighting designer on Broadway and toured with the rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. She now raises and trains award-winning golden retrievers from her home base in Florida. Ed Rasmuson went away to Harvard College, then worked back East in finance before returning to his home state. He eventually took over the National Bank of Alaska. At a Valentine’s Day party in 1969, he met Cathy, a Canadian new to Alaska. They married the same year.

Ed and Cathy Rasmuson are with their baby, Natasha, and Ed’s father, Elmer, in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s, Elmer was preparing Rasmuson Foundation for the turn from a small, virtually unknown family philanthropy. Board membership opened to family who didn’t live in Alaska. Non-family members eventually were term limited. Those moves ensured strong family presence. Judy, Lile and Cathy all joined. Ed had been serving on the board his whole adult life. Community members remain highly valued, Cathy notes. “They make us stronger and smarter about Alaska.”

Elmer pushed the board to visualize what the Foundation might become. Should there be a two-tier system of small and large grants? Multi-year grants? Challenge grants to encourage others to give? All that came to be. The Foundation’s main grant programs still are called Tier 1, for those up to $25,000, and Tier 2, for bigger awards.

The Rasmuson Foundation Board is pictured in the 1990s after it merged with Loussac Foundation. Front row: Judy Rasmuson, Elmer Rasmuson, Mary Louise Rasmuson and Lile Gibbons. Back row: Jim Flood, Ed and Cathy Rasmuson, Rick Mystrom, and Sandy and Jerry Harper.

A gift to Alaska

In May 2000, at age 91, Elmer led a Foundation board meeting at which he outlined his clear vision. He wanted long-term impacts and mindfulness of cultural and geographic differences. The viability of organizations needed to be considered in grantmaking. Board members needed to train successors. And he wanted to improve life in Alaska. Before his death in December 2000, he consulted with his son. He then left most of his fortune to Rasmuson Foundation. Ed became chairman.

The family’s core values still weave through the work. Not a board meeting goes by that someone doesn’t ponder “What would Elmer do?”

Because despite his gift and his guidance, he didn’t dictate where grants would go. Board members realized the enormous opportunity — and responsibility — before them. “We could affect some of the direction of how Alaska is going to develop,” Lile says. To create a structure for significant grantmaking, they reached out to M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Washington, which has remained a close partner. They decided to focus grants on Alaska projects except in special circumstances. They created a sabbatical program to help leaders of nonprofit, tribal and government organizations reset. “We give time off to Alaskans doing very tough jobs,” Cathy says. “What a difference that makes, for them and their organization.” They helped communities establish their own foundations and created an arts initiative. “We’ve provided buyers, we’ve provided venues, we’ve provided publicity, we’ve provided all sorts of things for the entire artistic community in Alaska,” Judy says. Elmer had focused on capital projects but when other needs emerged, the board had freedom to branch out. For instance, the Foundation funded a curriculum to educate the first U.S. mid-level oral health providers — Dental Health Aide Therapists — to serve communities with no dentist.

Board members began site visits to see the work for themselves. Needs they hadn’t even imagined propelled their desire to give. The mission remains broad, Judy says. “Does it help Alaska? Does it help Alaskans?”

Lile Gibbons, Ed Rasmuson and Judy Rasmuson gather in June 2013 at the Alaska Botanical Garden for the dedication of Lile’s Garden, named for their mother, Lile Bernard Rasmuson, an avid gardener. In faded red pedal pushers, she weeded, planted and, as her family said, created heaven. (Photo by Jeff Schultz)

This generation has embraced the responsibility of keeping the Rasmuson family in Rasmuson Foundation. Three of Elmer’s grandchildren, all with children of their own, now serve on the board. And what of the great grandchildren? There are 21 in all.

“They are not quite old enough,” Lile says. But they are active and involved in their own communities, which is good preparation, and some are interested in Alaska. She remembers the takeaway from a board retreat in 2003: “This is a family foundation that projects shared family values. We care very much that future generations remain involved and carry these values forward.” Cathy finds hope in the promise of younger generations committed to Alaska. “They’ve got a lot of energy and vigor. They’re us 30 years, 40 years ago.” As much as anything, Ed wants nonprofits to know “we’ve got their backs covered, and we’ve got great empathy for the work that they do.”

Cathy and Ed Rasmuson attend the Individual Artist Awards celebration in 2019 at Williwaw Social in Anchorage. (Photo by Matt Waliszek)