Ed Rasmuson remembered for putting Alaska ahead of politics

A portrait of a man
Ed Rasmuson at the Rasmuson Wing of the Anchorage Museum in 2020. (Kyle Seago/Magnetic North via Rasmuson Foundation)

Alaska lost a champion and a colossal philanthropist when retired banker Ed Rasmuson died Tuesday at age 81.

Friends and leaders around the state remembered him as an unflashy guy who was fiercely dedicated to Alaska. Through the Rasmuson Foundation, which he chaired, he devoted himself to giving away the family wealth to support the University of Alaska, the Anchorage Museum, countless non-profits and individual Alaskans.

Rasmuson’s daughter, state Sen. Natasha von Imhof, has served on the foundation board since 2005, but she says she really learned her dad’s values around the campfire, at the family cabin in the Mat-Su. That’s where Rasmuson instilled in her the importance of philanthropy focused on building up Alaska.

“And it’s always long-term,” she recalled her father telling her. “You gotta think about, not just two years, not just two decades, but two generations.”

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Rasmuson committed the family foundation to helping Alaskans meet basic needs for shelter, safety and education, and also to fostering arts and culture.

In a 2019 interview, he said the state needs a full range of educational opportunities, as he sought for himself when he left to study at Harvard College.

“I knew I was going to go into banking but I told my dad I didn’t want to just study economics,” he said. “I wanted to go into history and literature and music, which I did. And I never regretted it. I have more of a broad base to myself than just money and banking.”

Rasmuson was born in 1940, to Elmer and Lile Rasmuson. He was destined to join the family business – National Bank of Alaska – and he became chairman of the board. In 2000, he orchestrated the bank’s sale to Wells Fargo for $907 million. 

The sale helped fuel the Rasmuson Foundation, which became the largest private philanthropy in Alaska. Since its founding in 1955, it has made charitable contributions totalling more than $475 million, according to the foundation.

Rasmuson was a political conservative who supported the 2018 election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, but he regretted that support the next year, when Dunleavy proposed deep budget cuts, particularly to the University of Alaska. At the time, Rasmuson said the foundation was distributing more than half a million dollars a week, investing in projects across Alaska.

“We’re basically very committed to our state and I don’t like to see it torn down,” he told Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove in 2019. “My father used to say, ‘You can’t build a state with a hatchet.’ And that’s what we’re doing. We’re building it with a hatchet right now, and that’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.”

Dr. Tom Nighswander lived next door to Rasmuson in East Anchorage for nearly 30 years, when they were both raising children. Nighswander said they were daily running partners.

“When you run with a guy every morning for 26 years, you kind of know what they even dream about,” Nighswander said. “So we are actually quite close.”

Their friendship flourished despite the political chasm between them – Nighswander on the left, and Rasmuson on the right. Nighswander says they were both content to respect their differences.

Rasmuson, who was awarded a medal from the pope last year, was an active member of Anchorage First Presbyterian Church.

“He said grace with every meal and read the Bible every day,” Nighswander said. “And I think some of his orientation, and his ethic, is really a lot from the New Testament.”

One of Rasmuson’s causes was the Anchorage Museum, which owes a lot of its footprint to the Rasmuson Foundation. 

“He didn’t want us to lose our own culture and history,” said Museum Director Julie Decker. He believed “that those shouldn’t be exported outside the state, that we had to figure out ways to hold on to, not just objects, but our own story, our own narratives. That those were ours to hold.”

Decker thinks she probably owes her career to him, because when she was 19 she wrote Rasmuson a letter. She knew him as a banker who supported the museum.

“I wrote, I’m sure, a very naive note saying, ‘I’m a college student interested in museum studies and art and would like to do an internship in my hometown,’” she recalled.

She never got a reply letter. Rasmuson answered in banker style: He sent a check so that the Anchorage Museum could hire her as an intern. 

“I think it transformed my life,” Decker said. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.”

Outside of the foundation, Ed and his wife, Cathy, were generous in less visible ways. Nighswander said they’ve quietly provided help to non-profits and families in need.

Rasmuson died at home of brain cancer after a year of treatment.

“It was a very peaceful passing,” Von Imhof said. “My mom, my husband and I were all holding his hands and we just watched him fade away.”

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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