UA Journey

UA's First Graduate, John Shanly

Portrait of John Shanly at graduation in June, 1923. Photo: UAF Archives, University Relations Collection

During the 1972 alumni luncheon, the day before the University of Alaska's 50th commencement, William R. Cashen, university marshal and long-time member of the faculty, told the story of John Sexton Shanly, the university's first graduate. This is his written account of that first, one-man graduating class, the Class of '23.

Most of you are familiar with the legend of our opening day—September 18, 1922—when six students, all freshmen, showed up to register for classes and were greeted by six professors and President Charles E. Bunnell.

That was considerably fewer than the 150 predicted by the Fairbanks Commercial Club in 1917 when it was promoting the establishment of an agricultural college and school of mines in the Tanana Valley, but there was high hope when the Alaska Railroad was complete in 1923 that students from the coast and railbelt would come north to enroll.

Registration continued for some three weeks after instruction began--and the enrollment doubled before the books were closed on October 10. Registrant No. 12 was a senior, no less, and he was destined to a place in history as the first graduate and the lone member of the class of 1923. He was John Sexton Shanly; and since this is our 50th commencement, I thought it would be of interest to recall the first commencement, held on June 10, 1923, and to consider the career of John Sexton Shanly.

John Shanly standing outside of Old Main. Photo: Rasmuson Library, LarVern Collection

Shanly was 28 when he enrolled. He had spent three years at Cornell University, but had dropped out early in 1917 to volunteer as an ambulance driver for the French Army. When the United States entered the conflict he asked to be discharged so he could take naval flight training back in the U.S.A. His journey home was by British troop transport to India and then by Danish ship to San Francisco. The war ended while he was in flight training at Pensacola, Florida.

An adventurer at heart, Shanly decided to head for Oregon as his first step toward his ultimate goal—a homestead in the Peace River area of Alberta.

After a season in a logging camp he visited Portland before heading north. There he saw advertisements offering jobs on the construction of the Alaska Railroad and offering free fare to Alaska for those hired. This temptation was too great to ignore and Shanly signed up. He worked for six months on the southern end of the line, with a fellow worker, walked 150 miles to the north end, where the wages were 25 cents an hour higher. When the temperature dropped in October he quit and went to work as a coal miner in the Healy area.

The idea of homesteading was still uppermost in Shanly's mind. In the late summer of 1922 he came north to Fairbanks, made inquiries about homesteading possibilities and was happy to learn that he could file on land which bordered the southern boundary of the newly organized Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines.
It was while he was filing for his homestead that Shanly met President Bunnell, who was in the courthouse that day on business. When Bunnell learned that Shanly had had three years of agriculture at Cornell, he proposed that Shanly enroll at the Alaska college. He could live and prove up on his homestead while finishing requirements for his degree.

The first geology field trip. Third from the left is John Sexton Shanly. Photo: Rasmuson Library, Bunnell Collection

This sounded reasonable to Shanly and he enrolled. He also built two log cabins on his property, rented one and set up housekeeping in the other. On College Hill, overlooking his homestead stood one lone classroom building and a cottage for President Bunnell that was still under construction. He was the only upperclassman and was promptly elected president of the Student Association. His courses were tailored to fill the gap between the courses he had had at Cornell and the minimum requirements for a degree in Agriculture. He had considerable difficulty in organic chemistry, and there was concern on the part of the faculty and the trustees whether or not there would be a first commencement at the end of the first year. Somehow Shanly was able to squeeze by and there was great rejoicing on and about the campus.

The first annual commencement was held on Tuesday evening, June 12, 1923 in the assembly room of the Main Building. Townspeople were carried on several trips of an electric railroad car to the foot of College Hill. A foot trail led from there to the Main Building. The speaker for the event was John A. Davis, superintendent of the Bureau of Mines station in Fairbanks, and John Sexton Shanley was presented with a hand-executed diploma declaring him a bachelor of science in Agriculture.

John Shanly, July 1961. Photo: From Jennifer Shanly Boll

Shanly was principal of the Nenana High School for a year, and then went to California, where he spent several years and in other parts of the world producing educational motion pictures. In 1935 he was an education specialist at a CCC camp in DeRuyter, N.Y., and was instrumental in establishing Wilderness College, a camp-operated school for camp personnel. Next he became an inspector for the Food and Drug Administration. He retired from this civil service position in 1956 and immediately opened Shanly International Travel Inc., in Buffalo, N.Y., offering conducted tours to all parts of the world.

Throughout his busy life, Shanly kept in touch with his Alaska friends and made several trips back for brief visits. He attended the 1954 commencement on the campus. The eldest of his three daughters, Patricia, enrolled at the university in 1947, the first child of a graduate to do so. Patricia married (former State Senator) Brad Phillips the following year and lived in Anchorage until her death following an automobile accident on the Seward Highway five years ago.

In 1960 Shanly timed a visit to Seward to coincide with the Grand Igloo meeting of the Pioneers of Alaska, and the Pioneers initiated him into their order. Five years later he was conducting a tour group in a little mining town in Mexico and fell into conversation with the mining engineer in charge. His Pioneer lapel button caught the attention of the engineer, Patrick H. O'Neill, Class of 1941 and past president of the Fairbanks Igloo No. 4, Pioneers of Alaska.

John and Mildred, Shanly's 2nd wife. Photo: From Jennifer Shanly Boll

It was with great sadness that the University Alumni Office learned of the death of John Shanly on December 16, 1971. He had retired from his travel agency in 1970 and had moved to Cuba Lake, N.Y. A car struck him near his home. He was 77 years of age.

John Shanly was active in many civic and fraternal organizations and received certificates of appreciation from the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and Cornell University. He took his greatest pride in the fact that he was the first graduate of the University of Alaska.

Pauline Shrrock of Anchorage helps to sort through a storage container in search of UA's first diploma. Photo: Kate Wattum, 2004

John Shanly is also mentioned in this article:

Class of 2005 - following in the footsteps of John S. Shanly

John Shanly's grandaughter, Jennifer Shanly Boll, contacted the UA Office of Public Affairs through these Web pages about her family still possessing John's diploma from the Alaska College. As it turned out, Jennifer's uncle, Brad Phillips, formerly of Anchorage, had had the certificate put in a cold storage container with his other belongings after his retirement from the tourist business. Public Affairs arranged to meet with a close friend of Brad's in Anchorage to sift through the container contents in search of the diploma. After about an hour, it was discovered. Jennifer Shanly Boll sent a handful of pictures of her grandfather 's life. They are available by the links below.

John and Mildred in Spain, 1961

Portrait of John and Mildred Shanly

Patricia Shanly, John's first daughter also went to UA.

John Shanly after picking up his daughter, Sheila, at boarding school.

Shanly's granddaughter and daughter, Jennifer and Sheila.