October 17, 2006

The Story of Emerson Collier


In 1947, the University had no pre-med program, yet faculty members devised a special program of study that helped Emerson qualify for the medical program at the University of Oregon.  The individualized attention Emerson received at the University of Alaska was something that he remembered throughout his life.  He also remembered the University in his will, with a $100,000 bequest to be used at the discretion of the University President.  The University has created the Emerson Collier Quasi-Endowment to support health related programs throughout the University system.

Emerson Joseph Collier was born in 1916 in the harsh, copper mining town of Butte, Montana, the middle child between two brothers and two sisters. Life was hard growing up during the depression.  As he moved out of childhood, Emerson analyzed the prospects for success in Butte, and decided to better himself through his school studies and hard work.

Driving a truck for Coca Cola as a young adult, Emerson spent time reflecting on his past and considering his future.  He decided that he would work for himself in business or as an attorney or doctor, so he could determine his own fate.  He heard jobs were available in Alaska, and he stowed away on a steamer, hiding out in the lifeboats.  He disembarked in Seward with $0.50 in his pocket and eventually made his way up to Fairbanks where the University of Alaska was being built.  Shortly thereafter, he approached a foreman and asked for construction work, boldly announcing that he was a cement finisher, which was the only job open.  The contractor took a liking to Emerson, keeping him employed while encouraging him to attend college.  At UA, he thrived as a student. Emerson attended class, studied, worked three jobs, slept during lunch and work breaks, was captain of both the wrestling and the football team, and skied. He was also editor of the “Denali”, the student yearbook, and the second student in UA history to represent the University twice in “Who’s Who in American Colleges”.

Because Alaska had no medical school, his professors contacted the University of Oregon to determine the prerequisites Emerson would have to satisfy for a smooth transition into medical school.  These same professors devised a special course of study and classes specifically for Emerson to allow him to qualify.  Emerson Collier was one of only 47 students to graduate from UA in 1941.

After graduation, Emerson attended medical school in Oregon, but his education was completed on an accelerated schedule when he was called to service as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II.  Following his discharge he completed his medical schooling at the University of Wisconsin and then went on to open a successful practice in urology and surgery in Colorado and later in Oregon.

When reviewing what made Emerson so successful, his wife Frances points to three characteristics: perseverance, tenacity, and a true appreciation of earth’s natural beauty.

Emerson provided for the University of Alaska through his estate because he felt that “after the University made pre-med classes available to me, I was able to recognize both my drive and my potential, helping me achieve the first step of my journey in education”.

Clearly, his work ethic and intelligence were a great combination that enabled him to rise up from the challenges of life in America at the turn of the last century to establish a sound medical career.  

Emerson’s bequest to the University was made with no restrictions.  To honor Emerson’s life-commitment, University President Mark Hamilton has created the Emerson Collier Quasi-Endowment to provide for the needs of the University’s health programs throughout the University system. 

The University of Alaska is grateful for the generous gift Dr. Collier provided through his estate.  Unrestricted gifts such as his are most appreciated because they allow the University of Alaska great flexibility.  Emerson’s generosity is remarkable.

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