Cashen's Corner by Prof. William R. Cashen Reprint from: The Alaska Alumnus, Summer 1968
Ben Atkinson was born and grew up in LaPorte, Indiana, where he completed high school
in 1935. The great depression still gripped the nation but Ben was one of the fortunate
ones in his area to obtain employment at an Allis-Chalmers plant, where he stayed
four years and learned the mechanics trade.
In 1939 he and his lifetime friend, Vince Magnuson, who is presently superintendent of buildings maintenance at the University, decided to seek their fortunes in Alaska. They arrived in Fairbanks late in July to find new jobs available at that late date in the season. They obtained short-term jobs on construction, on the Railroad and helping with the local potato harvest. Prospects of a long hard winter loomed ominously.
One day in Martin Pinska's clothing store the two Indianians told Bob Claus, the clerk, of their predicament. He recommended that they enroll at the University of Alaska, an economical place to spend the winter.
They walked out to the campus and explained their situation to President Bunnell. But even $55 a month for board and room seemed pretty high so Dr. Bunnell offered, free of charge, the use of a cabin on one of his properties, the Borden ranch, two miles north of campus. He gave them permission to use the fallen trees for firewood and arranged for part-time jobs on the campus. They enrolled as freshman in engineering.
I first met Ben in the summer of 1941, when the U.S. Corps of Engineers was making
a frantic, all-out effort to construct Elmendorf Air Force Base and have it reasonably
operational in one short construction season. The call went out for engineers and
engineering aides and the Civil Engineering Department of the University - faculty
and students were recruited almost en masse. Professors Hough, Campbell and Dawson
and a dozen upperclassmen arrived in Anchorage the day after commencement. Among them
was Ben Atkinson. Already on the job at Elmendorf was a University graduate, Woodrow
Johansen. I had been teaching in Anchorage for four years, but even I was recruited
for surveying duty; and with Ben and Herman Porter joined the survey crew of Woody
Johansen. It was a memorable summer; we worked hard and became known as the "can-do"
crew, drawing the roughest, but never-the-less, most interesting survey jobs. We laid
out railroad spurs, airstrips, buildings, sewer lines, and even a dam site back in
the Chugach Mountains. Ben was a hard worker and learned quickly. By the end of the
summer he headed a survey crew of his own.
The following year, Johansen and I joined the faculty and Ben joined the army. An advanced ROTC student when called up, Ben served in Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific as an infantry sergeant. When the war ended, Ben returned to the campus and in 1947 competed his B.S. in Civil Engineering. Most of his upper division courses he took from his former party-chief, Professor Johansen and from Dean William Elmhist Duckering.
The years following his graduation were busy ones for Ben. He worked as an engineer for Arctic Contractors on the DEW line, as an independent consultant for a time, and then as an assistant construction superintendent for Puget-Sound-Drake.
In 1957 he succeeded Richard Russell as University Engineer, a job for which he was
eminently well-qualified. A list of the buildings and projects completed under his
supervision reads like a complete inventory of campus facilities. In addition to the
building program, the maintenance and security phases of campus operation were under
To Ben the University was more than just a physical plant to build, operate and maintain. It was a big part of his life and into each of his projects went an extra measure of devotion. This was his Alma Mater; this was his life's work.
Graduates such as Ben Atkinson cause all of us who attend this University to stand a little taller, a little prouder, because he was one of us. We, the Alumni of the University, take justifiable pride in his accomplishments.