Yukon Quest sled dog race co-founder LeRoy Shank dies

LeRoy Shank (left) waits at the finish line of the 2020 Yukon Quest with Hugh Neff (Lex Treinen/KUAC)

LeRoy Shank, one of the founders of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race has died. 

The 79-year-old suffered from Parkinson’s disease and passed away over the weekend in Fairbanks.

According to Yukon Quest lore, LeRoy Shank, friend Roger Williams and a few others came up with the idea for the race while drinking at a local bar, but long-time Quest executive director Marti Steury says there’s a little more to the story.

“‘LeRoy Shank worked at the News-Miner and he and his co-worker Roger Williams, who was a history buff, both started talking about taking short little mid-distance races and connecting together all the short little mail trails all the way to Whitehorse. And that conversation they had from month to month. They weren’t the first, but they were the first to actually take that conversation and turn it into something else,” Steury said.

LeRoy Shank (left) and Roger Williams (Photo courtesy of Yukon Quest Alaska)

Something else was an actual race, which Steury says involved cooperation and organization with fellow history and mushing enthusiasts in the Yukon, an effort that gelled during a fall 1983 public meeting in Fairbanks.

“It was a small group of us that were there. Someone said, ‘Well gosh, you know, I can help with the dinner.’ Someone said, ‘Gosh, well, I have a snow machine, I can help with the trail. I can help with this,’ and they were explaining all the different things they were doing and there was a gentleman in the back that stood up and said, ‘Hey, I believe in what you’re doing so much, here’s my entry fee!’ and LeRoy jumped up and said ‘The race is on!’” Steury said.

The first running of the Yukon Quest was in February 1984, and 37 years later, over a thousand mushers have left the start line, including LeRoy himself, and his more recently his granddaughter. 

“To be honest with you, when I got one dog, and then I got two dogs, and then I got three dogs, he was like, ‘Oh no, I see where this is going.’” said Olivia Shank-Neff, Shank’s granddaughter. “But he definitely wanted me to do the Quest, like he asked me, ‘You’re gonna sign up this year, right?’”

Olivia Shank-Neff poses with LeRoy at the finish of the 2020 Yukon Quest (Lex Treinen/KUAC)

Shank-Neff describes her grandfather as her best friend: a relationship she says revolved around dogs and the outdoors.

This past February Shank-Neff made grandpa proud completing her rookie run in the red lantern spot, with LeRoy there to see it.

“I finished and walked into the banquet with all my musher attire on, and I made it just in time, and apparently, the one time LeRoy finished the Quest, he arrived during the banquet too and came in with all his mushing attire on. He was just so happy that I finished,” Shank-Neff said.

Shank-Neff and husband Hugh Neff, a two-time Quest champion, took care of Leroy as his struggle with Parkinson’s worsened. Hugh escorted LeRoy along the rail to watch Shank-Neff when she passed through road accessible race checkpoints, a fitting last adventure for the race co-founder and longtime volunteer, service they hope to honor with an annual award. 

“He was the Quest’s number one volunteer, that’s what he always talked about, so we’re hoping in the future to honor him somehow with some type of award on a yearly basis with the Quest that could be for the number one volunteer. That’s what LeRoy was all about was about giving back,” Neff saod. 

A memorial service will be scheduled after the coronavirus situation calms down, and, as he requested, LeRoy’s ashes will be scattered at his favorite fishing spot.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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