Q and A Conversation with Helen Atkinson: Gryffindor

As a part of the Q and A series with university officials, each person will be asked to take a "sorting hat" personality test for fun and good measure. The Statewide Voice staff appointed Helen to the Gryffindor House.

Interview conducted and written by Chas St. George

Helen Atkinson has lived to see almost an entire century, most of that in Alaska. As a 97-year-old woman, Atkinson has forged a path full of success and accomplishment. She began making waves as the first female graduate of the University of Alaska with a degree in civil engineering, she served as regent for nine years, became the Fairbanks city engineer and transformed into an acclaimed writer. Atkinson now spends her time restfully enjoying something she has long pursued, art. Her life, full of intrigue and excitement, has been anything but relaxing.  

Atkinson combs through old journals and files during her interview. Photo by Chas St. George.

You literally grew up in mining camps across the lower 48 as a young girl. What was that like?  

It was wonderful. My dad was an accountant for a mining company, so we spent the better part of our childhood growing up in mining camps. I remember there weren’t that many girls at the camps, especially my age.

How did you end up in Alaska? 

In 1928 Dad accepted a position with a mining company in Fairbanks. We lived in the main house at the camp. We had steam heat, bathrooms, and a lot of other wonderful amenities. The mining camp had a van that took all of the children to school. 

My dad took the position because he wanted us to be close to a college. It was a priority for him that his children have access to a college education. As a matter of fact, he made me promise him that I would not get married until I completed college. 

Did you keep your promise? 

Yes I did. I graduated in 1936, and his graduation gift to me was that beautiful Chinese chest that’s out there in the living room. 

And when did you get married? 

I didn’t get married until 1937.

Helen Linck (Atkinson) pictured as part of the 1931-1932 Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines' women's baskeball team. Photo: UAF Archives, Frank Pettygrove Collection
Helen Linck (Atkinson) pictured as part of the 1931-1932 Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines' women's baskeball team. Photo: UAF Archives, Frank Pettygrove Collection.

What was campus life at UAF like in the early 1930’s? 

Well, I played basketball on the UAF Women’s team. I also loved the outdoors, so I did a lot of hunting during my college days. When we had dances, they were held in the gym, and everyone was civil to one another. There was no drinking or anything like that. It really was a good time to grow up. We all knew each other, and we treated each other with respect.

You chose a field at UAF that was… well… male dominated at the time. It’s my understanding that you were the only female graduate in your engineering class… correct?

Yes, and that distinction stayed that way for thirty years. I found out later that, at that time (1936), there were only 50 female undergraduate civil engineers in the world. Very few women were going to college back then, and even fewer were going into engineering.

Today, the University of Alaska is known for its undergraduate research opportunities. Were there research opportunities available when you went to UAF?

You bet there were. As a matter of fact, I can remember when we went in the field to study the Northern Lights. I remember times when it was 50 below zero and we’d be outdoors taking pictures of the lights.   We also went into the field and got hands on training as surveyors. 

So, after graduating from UAF, you got married, and began a family. Three years later, the country entered World War II. That’s when life really changed for you didn’t it?

It did. I had just arrived in Seattle with my two daughters to visit my husband’s family when the war broke out. Shortly after arriving, I got a job at Boeing. It really helped to have that engineering degree. I was earning a whole nickel more an hour then the rest of the girls.

I loved my time at Boeing. It was like going back to school and getting paid for it. I began writing up shop orders for making parts for the B29s. That required me to know about the tooling that was done and the parts that were used to fashion the material. I helped familiarize the incoming workers with the parts of the aircraft they would be building. 

Then, they sent me to Renton, Washington to conduct the final checks for aircraft that were being completed as an inspector. When I arrived there, we were sending out one B29 a day. By the time I left, we were up to four a day.

A Cinematic Snapshot of Helen Atkinson

The Statewide Voice staff sorted Helen as a Gryffindor. The Gryffindor emblem is the lion and the house prides itself on boldness, courage, daring choices and chivalry. Some other notable Gryffindors include Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore and the Weasleys.
Atkinson working as a city engineer in Fairbanks in the 1950s.

Then what?

The girls and I reconnected with my husband who was working as a radio engineer in Southeast Alaska. We lived in Biorka Island for two years. That’s where I had my third daughter. Then we moved to Sitka for four years, and I began focusing on another passion, art. After that, we move to Lake Minchumina, in Interior Alaska. I worked as a surveyor there for the FAA, as well as a cook.

When you showed me some of your artwork earlier, I noticed that you have a lot of structures, like bridges, cathedrals, and storefronts in them… any chance that part of your passion for art includes your passion for civil engineering?

You know I never thought about that, but I think you might be right.

Lets talk about your return to Fairbanks in the early 1950’s.

I got a job with the City of Fairbanks, assisting the city engineer. Shortly after that, the city engineer took over as city manager, and I took over his job as city engineer.

What was Fairbanks like at that time?

Fairbanks was growing and upgrading its infrastructure. I worked on both the waste and clean water system upgrades. We had to put in special pumps in order to keep the lines open during the winter. At the time, the Northward Building was going up. So we had to figure out how to get steam heat up six to eight stories. There was a lot of innovation happening on the fly during that time.

How is it that, after working for the City of Fairbanks as their engineer, you transformed yourself into an industry acclaimed writer? 

I was working with my husband helping to write up applications for oil development claims. So, I ended up taking on a newsletter that helped inform Alaskan oil industry developers about available land. It didn’t take long for the newsletter to expand to six pages and eventually contain all kinds of information about the industry’s development growth in Alaska. After that I got more involved in the industry and began writing more in depth articles on North Slope development. I really loved that work.

Atkinson looking at an article she wrote as resource editor for her newspaper about oil wells and resource development. Photo by Chas St. George.

Tell me what it meant to you to serve on the University of Alaska Board of Regents? 

Well, my service on the board of regents still means a lot to me. When I came on the board, Elmer Rasmuson was the President. He was a very good president. He encouraged discussion. I think we got a lot done for that reason. 

I remember my first meeting. We had to vote on whether to build a new engineering building or not. I told the board that I was in favor of the new building. Elmer sided with me, and after a lot of discussion, UAF got a new engineering building.

When you look at the University of Alaska today, and how it has grown, do you smile a little bit about that engineering building?

Oh yes, I’m very happy about being a part of the University of Alaska… it’s like being home. You know, I have a grandson who is a junior in high school… and he hasn’t decided what to do about college yet… well actually he hasn’t decided where to go to school yet. He is considering engineering. And right now, he’s thinking about going to school at UAA… but I’m working on trying to convince him to consider UAF.

Have you ever just sat back and taken inventory of all you have accomplished in your life?

Well I didn’t plan on any of it; It just sort of fell in my lap. I never intentionally said, ‘I’m going to do this or that’. But, I would say that raising my four children (three daughters and one son) was my greatest accomplishment.

For more information about Helen Atkinson and her contributions to the University of Alaska, read the UA Journeys article about her here.

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