UA Journey

Dorothy Loftus

Picture of Dorothy Loftus taken from a 1931 alumni meeting group portrait. Photo: Alumni Service Collection UAF Library

Dorothy Loftus graduated in 1927 with a B.S. in general science. She served as the school pianist and associate editor of the Farthest North Collegian. After graduation, Dorothy was among those who help organize the college's alumni association. Information from the UAF Alumni Association file.

When one of the original six members of the the University of Alaska's first class of students returned to the UAF campus for a visit during the summer of 1991, some 65 years after graduation, she offered these words of wisdom, "If you want to leave footprints in the sand, wear workshoes!"

That's a philosophy that's been a driving force in the life of Dorothy Roth Loftus, one of a handful of students entering the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now called the University of Alaska Fairbanks, when it opened Sept. 18, 1922.

In recent years, the path Dorothy's footprints made are mingled with the steps of countless others who have influenced the direction she's taken by the tales they've told, or the lessons they've offered; stories and lessons that span more than a century of life in the Last Frontier.

Dorothy first came to Fairbanks in 1906. She was barely a year-and-a-half old. She felt the importance of telling the stories of those who came to Alaska to find something, or escape something. Through her voice the people live again and will not be forgotten in the tales Dorothy shared for others to record.

Art and Dorothy Loftus on a visit to the UAF campus in 1968. Photo: UA Alumni Association

There were three kinds of people who followed the goldstrikers to Alaska at the turn of the century. "They were heretics, misfits or the starry-eyed," she said. Dorothy says her father was one of those who came north to Alaska with stars in his eyes.

She said her father had been an attorney in California when he received a letter from his brother in Alaska, telling of the contingency fees to be made off the miners staking claims in the Interior. With a lust for gold to be made from the goldstrikers, and a lure for his own poke of gold he found hard to resist, the 41-year-old attorney left the comfort of southern California and moved his pregnant wife and two young daughters north. The trip took more than a month from San Francisco. It was a trip from which her mother never quite recovered.

While Dorothy realized the hardships those early years had on her mother, a woman who was used to civilization and comforts of urban California living, Dorothy also remembered a picture of Fairbanks with a spark and spirit only a rowdy frontier town can conjure up.

"There were saloons and on Fourth Avenue were the 'ladies of the night,'" she said. "And way out of town on 10th and Cushman was a detention hospital for the insane."

Art and Dorothy Loftus at the 1956 Golden Days celebration in costumes that were worn in 1912 by Mr. and Mrs. Luther Hess. Photo: UAF Archives

Dorothy says the hospital held mentally ill patients until passage could be booked to Morningside Mental Hospital in Portland, Ore., as no such facility existed in the territory of Alaska during the first half of the century.

As Fairbanks grew, so did the amenities. Dorothy remembers a "a fine grocery store, a roller rink, an auditorium, a library and even a swimming pool."

Dorothy's mother, while saying of Fairbanks, "all of it cold, all of it misery," also insisted that her children be exposed to culture. There were books to read and music lessons to take.

"I had many interesting music teachers, one of whom was an Austrian who knew Franz Listz." The teacher, says Dorothy, instilled in her a love of music that sustains her to this day, but was one of the "misfits" who travelled half-way around the world to find a place to call home.

"In 1885 he left Europe and went to New York City to play with the New York Philharmonic," she says. He did and at one point played with John Philip Sousa. But after an injury which left him with a reduced capacity to play, decided "he couldn't play second fiddle to himself," and left New York to became part of the 1890s' Klondike Gold Rush and Yukon Stampede.

"He traveled to Chilkoot Pass, built a boat at Lake Labarge and came to Fairbanks after the Pedro strike," says Dorothy.

1993 ceremony on the UAF campus to confer an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws upon Dorothy Loftus. Her daughter Ann accepted the award for her. Photo: UAF Alumni Association

In addition to "playing for the girls on the row," referring to the Fairbanks women who supported themselves in what is also known as the world's oldest profession, Dorothy's Austrian music teacher also gave piano lessons, which is how she and her sister, Florence, who was born in Fairbanks soon after the trip from San Francisco, learned to play.

Dorothy not only put her talents to work as a piano player for the silent movies which were a regular feature of early Fairbanks entertainment, she also used her musical talents to teach lessons to support herself while attending college.

The location of the college where Dorothy would eventually go to school was chosen in 1915 by one of Fairbanks' early founders, James Wickersham. According to Dorothy, Wickersham lobbied for a college site in Fairbanks because "he said people in Juneau or Ketchikan could more easily go to Washington or California for college."

She explained Anchorage wasn't even a consideration because in 1915, the town barely existed. Construction of the Alaska Railroad, which began in 1915, ultimately led to the development of what is now Alaska's largest city.

Three years after Wickersham chose the Fairbanks site, territorial governor John Strong signed the legislation which created the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines.

Dorothy's father, while still holding on to his dream of striking it rich in the mine he owned, continued his work as a lawyer. Along with the contingency fees he took for helping miners process their claims, he also took on other cases. Eventually, Dorothy's father worked as a district attorney under Judge Charles Bunnell.

Bunnell was the university's founding president, but because of a bitter feud between Bunnell and Wickersham, Dorothy's father forbade her to attend the groundbreaking and laying of the cornerstone for the new college, which took place on July 4, 1915.

Although Dorothy wasn't allowed to witness Wickersham overturn the first spade of dirt for what eventually would be a new college, she was one of the first to sign up for classes when the school was completed in 1922.

She recalls the student to teacher ratio of that first graduating class: six students, six instructors.

More than half of the class that was to graduate in 1927 was comprised of four brothers. One of the four Loftus boys, Arthur, was the man Dorothy eventually would marry.

The Loftuses homesteaded a huge parcel of land near the college on the hill, Loftus Road bears the name of the brothers who made their home in the area. In 1927, the first class to enter the new college graduated with prophetic words from President Bunnell:

"As students of the College during the first year of its existence you have unusual responsibilities as well as unusual privileges. Instead of following traditions, it is your privilege to make them. You are builders engaged in the arduous task of establishing the foundation of a structure that is to be completed and adorned by others."

Dorothy has been a foundation for the college. After graduation, Dorothy was among the first to organize the University of Alaska Alumni Association and served as secretary from 1927 through 1934. She served on the Executive Committee from 1934 through 1939. In 1969, Art and Dorothy, along with Ted Loftus and his wife Audrey, were instrumental in establishing the Oregon Chapter of the Alumni Association, with Dorothy serving as president.

In some ways, Dorothy has grown along with not only the university, but with Fairbanks as well. Felix Pedro's gold strike, which virtually put Fairbanks on the map, took place in 1902, just four years before Dorothy and her family came to the Interior mining town.

Over the years, Dorothy never forgot the contributions and sacrifices of other, early residents which she kept alive through stories of her family and her past. Stories which show us how the foundation of Fairbanks and Alaska was built.


Dorothy Loftus is also mentioned in these articles

Honorary Degree Recipient 1993

A Homestead Frat House