UAF: Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli

The View Vast Beyond Us

Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker

As a poet, Peggy Shumaker looks for telling details. Joe Usibelli does the same as an engineer. Yet, Shumaker observed in a recent poem, such details can crowd out the bigger picture — “the view vast beyond us.”

No worries. When it comes to building a good place to live, Shumaker and Usibelli clearly haven’t lost that broader view.

“It’s our home,” Usibelli said in 2011 when asked why he and his family contribute so much to Alaska’s communities. “And there are a lot of people in the home who need help, so we help them.”

Usibelli, chairman of the Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. board, and Shumaker, a professor emeritus of English at UAF, have made the university one of their focus areas when delivering that help.

Shumaker began giving Alaskans insightful lines of poetry decades ago. She started writing as a young child with “spectacularly mismatched” parents in Tucson, Arizona.

Her father wanted to ride motorcycles, play music and sleep with as many women as possible, she said in a 2014 interview. The home filled with tension. Her mother died when Shumaker was 16.

“So I wrote, because the page was the one place I had any measure of control,” she said. “I made up stories and songs and poems. I wrote to my great-grandmother all in rhyme, and she would write back all in rhyme.”

Shumaker earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Arizona. She first taught at UAF in 1985, left for a few years and returned in 1988.

Usibelli, meanwhile, was leading Alaska’s largest coal mine. His father, Emil, who immigrated from Italy in 1907 at age 14, moved to Alaska in 1935. He started a coal mine near Healy after World War II began.

Usibelli grew up in the tiny mining town of Suntrana, on the bank of Healy Creek. “I played outdoors all the time,” he recalled in 2011. “I drove my first tractor when I was seven. Really upset my mom when she found out about it.”

Usibelli moved to Fairbanks for high school, then earned a civil engineering degree at UA in 1959. Five years later, he and his young family were driving home to Alaska from graduate school at Stanford University. Guards at the Canadian border told him his father had died in a mine accident just hours before the Good Friday earthquake. At age 25, he found himself in charge of the company.

It prospered. Usibelli turned over the presidency to his son in 1987 but remains board chairman.

Around that time, the Usibelli family decided it wanted “to do something for the university,” he said. That idea became the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Public Service Awards, first given in 1992.

“I was at a reception for it, and one person came up to me, who was not a recipient, and told me that what we were doing was a good thing,” Usibelli said. “That was Peggy. I’d never met her before. But I said, ‘You know, there’s a lady with a lot of class.’ And I was absolutely right.”

Shumaker won the teaching award in 1996. Two years later, she and Usibelli, by then single, were married. Shumaker retired from the university in 1999.

But an easy life was not in the script. In 2000, a young man on a speeding four-wheeler struck Shumaker and Usibelli as they bicycled along a path in Fairbanks.

When Shumaker regained consciousness in the hospital, she was on a ventilator. But “the most frightening thing was that I couldn’t read,” she told an interviewer in 2009. “My eyesight was skewed and my cognitive ability was also skewed.”

Shumaker gradually regained her abilities. In 2009, she published a prose memoir, Just Breathe Normally, after struggling with both the idea and the work.

“My memory is not to be trusted. It is filled with holes. It is completely damaged. How can I do this?” she said that year. “And I realized, so is everybody else’s! Nobody has the complete picture. … It was a tremendous liberation when I realized I’m not responsible for the entire truth.”

She hasn’t slowed down since. In 2008, she established Boreal Books to publish Alaska literature and fine art. She was Alaska’s writer laureate from 2010-2012 and began editing the Alaska Literary Series for the University of Alaska Press. She teaches through writing workshops and programs. The Rasmuson Foundation named her a distinguished artist in 2014.

40 Years of Giving

And she and her husband have continued to attend to the University’s needs through multiple gifts – every year for the last 40 years. In 2014, they presented the University of Alaska Museum of the North with $1 million to anchor renovation of its Gallery for Alaska.

“You give back. You have to,” Usibelli said during the 2011 UAF Legacy Lecture broadcast from the Charles Davis Concert Hall. “Either that or you’re not doing it right.”