I was rather irritated the first time I met Ed Rasmuson. I was the new CEO of Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), having arrived from California months before. My new employer’s flagship program, aired across the state, was “Alaska News Nightly.” One of the reasons I was hired was because I knew something about corporate underwriting, new at the time, and the network board wanted to diversify its funding to not be so dependent on state dollars. Who better to approach than the National Bank of Alaska (NBA), with branches across the state. The VP for marketing shut me down. “Look, Ed Rasmuson just doesn’t like radio. We just don’t do it.” I argued and he finally said, “There’s nothing I can do. If you don’t like it, ask him yourself.” I retreated back to my office.
Months earlier when I arrived in Alaska, I queried people on where I should live, where I should shop, where I should bank. My new colleagues were all customers of National Bank of Alaska. I had never known people to actually LIKE a bank. I proceeded to open an account. So this situation about the underwriting was unnerving. Back at my APRN office, I dialed 276-1132, NBA’s main number. I asked to speak to Ed Rasmuson, president of the bank. A minute later I heard, “Ed Rasmuson.” I was stunned that the bank president answered his own phone. “May I have 10 minutes of your time this afternoon?” I asked. Sure, he said. A few hours later, I walked out of his office with $6,000 of NBA underwriting for “Alaska News Nightly.” That’s where it all started.
It was 1983, and Rasmuson Foundation was in its infancy. There was no office. No staff. No phone number. No guidelines. You had to hear about it from someone. I did and applied for one of their small capital grants, usually under $5,000. Radio networks need lots of stuff and technology was always changing. APRN’s first computer (Kaypro!) was a Rasmuson grant. So was our first fax machine and digital tape recorder. You would bring a letter request to the bank president’s office by Oct. 1 and, if you were successful, you got a congratulations letter and a check just before Christmas. If you weren’t successful, you got a “sorry” letter after New Year’s. I learned later that they didn’t want to disappoint anyone around the holidays so held the decline letters until after Jan. 1.
A short time later, James Michener was visiting the state after the publication of his book, “Alaska.” There was a receiving line in the Heritage Library on the main floor of the NBA headquarters. I shook Ed Rasmuson’s hand and he turned his head to the left and slightly bowed to a serious looking shorter older man. “Dad,” he said, “this is Diane Kaplan, the head of the public radio network. She’s a very good saleswoman.”
Ed decided I was a real “stemwinder.” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I knew it was a compliment. Basically, he saw me as someone who got things done.
I left public radio after 11 years and formed a consulting company. One Sunday, I was thumbing through the classified ads and saw “Wanted: Grants Administration/PT, Rasmuson Foundation.” “Hmmm,” I thought. That could be fun and maybe I could get health insurance, too. I called Ed. “If you want it, it’s yours,” he said. So began a 25-year collaboration.
When I started with Rasmuson Foundation in 1995, we had under $6 million in assets. Once a year, right after Thanksgiving, we gave out about $300,000 in small capital grants. Five years later in 1999, on his 90th birthday, Elmer Rasmuson donated $90 million to causes he cared about — the Anchorage Museum and the Foundation. The heavy lifting began. Ed knew everyone, everywhere. I spent a lot of time learning about Alaska history, Alaska people, Alaska places, the family, the vision for Alaska. We created guidelines, an office, and joined industry organizations. We solicited trusted organizations to submit proposals for our first big round of grantmaking, around $2.5 million. By then, Lile Gibbons and Judy Rasmuson, Ed’s sisters, and Cathy Rasmuson, his wife, had joined the board. It was exciting and daunting. In just a couple of years, the family bank was sold, Elmer died, and the Foundation grew to a half billion in assets.
I think Ed and I were a great team. If something was important to him, I made it happen. If something was important to me, he let me pursue it. All of our major program initiatives started with a weighty discussion: Do we want to continue to have the arts be a significant part of our grantmaking? Yes? Then we need to do something other than capital grants for this sector. How many tubas does the symphony really need, after all? “Figure it out,” Ed would say. If we don’t have dentists in many rural areas, what about mid-level dental providers? “Figure it out.” Why do the bonds for parks and trails fail every year? We need to reorganize the muni parks department and move the staff from City Hall to the neighborhoods. “Make it so.” We need to stem the flow of Alaska wealth to the Lower 48. You’re the one who can get the right people to the table to start local community foundations. “Set it up. I’ll do it.” He had a special place in his heart for the most vulnerable in our state. “I can’t stand to see people living in tents on the street in my town. Do something.”
Ed died on Jan. 4. He was a good man. A great chairman. A mentor. A friend. Kind. Generous beyond words. A loving husband, proud father, wonderful brother, beloved uncle. He had so many friends in so many places. He was one of a kind. A “mensch” we say in Hebrew. A role model, a singer, a fisherman, a hunter, a traveler.
I last met with Ed about a week before his death. He knew the end was near, and so did I. He was very happy that we got the Sockeye Inn deal done to house over 100 medically fragile people living in the Sullivan Arena, and we talked about that. He was churning about state politics. He was deeply troubled at the decline of salmon on the Yukon River and that locals were unable to commercial or subsistence fish. The last directive from my Chairman was, “Take care of the fish.” This was a man who saw an Alaska problem and felt a duty to fix it. I hope he’s on a beautiful, heavenly flight in his Cessna right now, bringing his unique self, molded into greatness by the State and people he loved.