Alaska News

Alaska philanthropist and banker Ed Rasmuson dies at age 81

Ed Rasmuson

Edward “Ed” Rasmuson, a banker and philanthropist who led Alaska’s largest philanthropic organization, died Tuesday at age 81.

Rasmuson had been diagnosed with brain cancer about a year ago and entered hospice care three days before Christmas. His oldest daughter, Natasha von Imhof, said he died in the company of family on Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage.

“We’ve all known this time was coming. It’s a sad day,” said George Suddock, one of Rasmuson’s friends since childhood.

The family said a memorial service will take place at a date to be determined in the spring.

Rasmuson inherited control of Alaska’s most powerful bank, National Bank of Alaska, and guided it through the pipeline boom and oil bust before it was sold to Wells Fargo in 2000.

When Rasmuson’s father died that year, proceeds from the billion-dollar sale made the Rasmuson Foundation into Alaska’s largest private philanthropic organization. Rasmuson switched from banking to the chairmanship of the foundation, distributing millions of dollars in gifts to benefit the arts, education, charitable projects, nonprofit organizations and community projects.

Former Alaska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, who knew Rasmuson for decades, said what distinguished Rasmuson was a determined focus on Alaska, whether developing its economic resources as a banker, or developing its cultural and social resources through giving.

“His interest was really Alaska,” Murkowski said.

In a message announcing Rasmuson’s death, the Rasmuson Foundation said that under his leadership, it invested in the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, helped create Pick.Click.Give. and started efforts in Anchorage to end homelessness and develop world-class trails and parks.

Outside of work, he served on the boards of the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University, as a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, as an elder at his church, and was known as an avid outdoorsman who hunted across Alaska and in Afghanistan.

“He was a good friend, a great guy, and a generous person. I think it’s a loss for the state,” said Carl Marrs, a Native corporation executive who was one of Rasmuson’s longtime friends and hunting partners.

Rasmuson is survived by his wife of 52 years, Cathy, his older daughter state Sen. Natasha von Imhof, and his younger daughter, Laura Emerson. He was preceded in death by his two sons, David and Bruce.

Rasmuson was born in 1940 in Houston, Texas, the first child of Yakutat-born Elmer Rasmuson and Lile Bernard. Three years after Ed was born, his father moved back to Alaska to take over what was then known as the Bank of Alaska.

As a result, Ed grew up in the rough-and-ready streets of Anchorage during and after World War II. Lile died in 1960, and Elmer Rasmuson remarried the following year. Ed went off to Harvard, earning a degree in history, but he stayed involved in the banking industry on the East Coast.

After the 1964 Good Friday earthquake destroyed the family home, Ed returned to Alaska, then went to work for the family business, first in Wrangell, then Ketchikan and in 1967, back to Anchorage.

“He liked to hunt. I remember him out in Wrangell, sitting on a log waiting for the ducks to come in, and he’s sitting there, reading the Wall Street Journal in his duck gear,” said Murkowski, describing Rasmuson during his time in Southeast Alaska.

At a Valentine’s Day party in 1969, Rasmuson met a young Canadian, Cathryn “Cathy” Robertson. They were engaged that summer and married that fall.

“We saw our marriage as being part of a team, complementing and meshing our strengths,” she said Tuesday. “He was the head. I was the heart. His problem-solving, budget-oriented mind mixed with my passions ... we were a formidable team.”

Ed was promoted through the ranks of National Bank of Alaska, becoming president in 1974, the same year construction began on the trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

“Ed felt that he was a bridge between the old era and the new, from pencils and bank ledgers ... to computers and internet banking,” Cathy said.

An avid hunter and traveler, he visited locations around the world, including Afghanistan in 1978.

When he was picked as the president of the University of Alaska Board of Regents the following year, an Anchorage Times reporter labeled him a “native-born aristocrat in a state too young, free-wheeling and transient to have many such.”

Named chairman of the National Bank of Alaska board in 1985, he served in that role until the decision in 1999 to sell the bank. At the time of that choice, it had $2.9 billion in assets and accounted for 45% of all of Alaska’s bank deposits.

After the bank’s sale, he became chairman of the Rasmuson Foundation, which had more than $400 million in assets at the time.

By 2003, the year the University of Alaska Anchorage’s business and public policy building was named Rasmuson Hall in honor of Ed and Cathy, Rasmuson said he hoped to see the foundation grow to more than $1 billion at the time of his death. As of the start of 2021, it had $729 million in assets.

“Every man hopes that what he accomplishes could perhaps be carried on by his son,” Elmer Rasmuson said shortly before his death in 2000. “I managed to have that with Ed.”

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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