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Last lap at the lectern: Celebrated Alaska historian gives one final lecture

  • Author: Tom Hewitt
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 22
  • Published May 22

Terrence Cole (right) and his sister Maureen Whitehead at a friend’s house in Fairbanks in spring 2018. (Photo by Artem Zhdanov)

All of us eventually do the thing we're best at one last time. Most of us don't know it when it happens.

Terrence Cole has been a history professor and author at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for decades. On Wednesday evening, he'll give the last lecture of his career.

It started with the cancer. In September 2017, doctors discovered tumors on Terrence's stomach. It wasn't just cancer. It was the kind of cancer that might lead a less optimistic person to stop checking the expiration dates when buying canned goods. It was Stage IV, where the diagnosis comes with simultaneous recommendations to start aggressive treatment right away and also to get your affairs in order.

For most of us, life after such a diagnosis would be a grim process — updating a will, leaving a job, spending time with family, trying to tick as many items off a bucket list as possible and hoping for as much time as possible. For Terrence, while it includes those items as well, he's added a couple of items unique to his profession: teaching a final course, and giving one last lecture.

To call Terrence Cole a history professor isn't quite the same as calling Yo Yo Ma a cellist, but it's in the same ballpark. Here in Alaska, we're more keenly aware of the tenuous nature of our collective memory — few people stay here long enough to have personal insight dating back more than a generation, and fewer still seek out those who do have that insight and tease out the threads of our state's story that make the historical record come alive. Terrence is one of perhaps half a dozen people who rise to the level of being the keepers of Alaska's story, and he's almost certainly the funniest of the bunch.

Terrence Cole (left) poses with fellow University of Alaska Fairbanks history professor Mary Ehrlander in Fairbanks in spring 2018.

I was lucky enough to take part in the final course, "Polar Exploration and its Literature," enrolling along with a host of other students, staff and community history buffs — including Terrence's identical twin, Dermot — at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Everyone who signed up knew it would be the last class Terrence taught, and the $700-odd cost of tuition felt less like an investment in higher education than it did buying tickets to all the shows on your favorite band's final tour.

"Watching Terrence teach this last class was like watching a kid in a candy store," said Victoria Smith, a graduate student and university staff member who said she considers him a role model. "He doesn't just try to pour knowledge into empty vessels … that kind of humility is hard to find, particularly in faculty members."

Because of the fact he was receiving cancer treatment throughout the semester, Terrence co-taught the class with fellow professor Mary Ehrlander. This turned out to be a fortuitous arrangement, and one the university probably should have cottoned onto sooner. Terrence would be the first to admit that his classes often took off on wild tangents mid-lecture, as he recounted a hilarious story about a self-styled Czech historian who made up tales of 350-dog mail teams in Alaska, interrupting his own lesson about the Second Organic Act. An hour later, the class would be in stitches and full up on the best kind of north country trivia, but no one could remember the lecture topic.

With a second instructor in the mix, the discussion could usually be nudged back on topic after 10 or 15 minutes — enough time to hear the stories that only Terrence knew, but not so much that the entire point of the discussion was irretrievably lost.

According to Terrence's twin, Dermot, who is an author and journalist in his own right, writing Alaska's history and teaching it have been twin passions. "He loved doing it," Dermot said. "Ever since he went to college, all he wanted to do was write history. Teaching grew out of that."

In the weekly class sessions, Terrence's cancer was at the back of everyone's minds, or at least mine. There was no way around it, really, and from time to time he would make a joke of it — after dropping a particularly egregious pun, Terrence would say, "Remember, you can't get mad at me — I have cancer."

Terrence Cole listens during a conversation in spring 2018. (Photo by Artem Zhdanov)

Discussions about the historical record took on an almost metaphysical nature. It would do a disservice to history, he reminded the class, to cast things that happened long ago in black and white, through the lens of our present senses of ethics and morality. Discussions of explorers' legacies and the way people are remembered long after their deaths had a different tone when one of the keepers of that history was staring his own mortality in the face. If any of us were in danger of forgetting that, all we needed for a reminder was the blinking "Record" light on the camera near the back of the class; Terrence's lectures were being captured for posterity.

Though he will be remembered after his final lecture and long into the future as a prominent Alaska historian, those who have had the privilege to know Terrence personally got to see more than that: a wisecracking, relentlessly positive jokester who never hesitated to poke fun, particularly when his twin Dermot was the victim. A devoted father who accompanied his sons on hiking trips across Interior Alaska with the Boy Scouts. A diehard baseball fan firmly posted up in the stands at Growden Memorial Park watching the Alaska Goldpanners trounce a Lower 48 squad while his oldest son, Henry, ran the ancient scoreboard from the press box.

No matter where he is, from the classroom to the backcountry to the ballpark, Terrence has always been game for discussions about both history and current events, particularly when they get below the surface of the "who" and "what" and "when" to address the "why" — the motivations that drive people to plant a flag on the North Pole, to seek statehood for a territory few in Washington, D.C., cared about, or to fight for the survival of a frontier town on the banks of the Chena River. That drive to figure out the "why," and to delight in the details uncovered along the way, has defined Terrence's life for the three decades I've known him — and, I suspect, long before that.

On Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in Fairbanks, Terrence Cole will lead a lecture at UAF's Schaible Auditorium one last time. It will no doubt be an uproarious affair, packed with some of the best and brightest in Interior Alaska. I won't be there, but my heart will.

Tom Hewitt, born and raised in Fairbanks, is the opinion editor for the Anchorage Daily News.

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