June 09, 2005

Diploma from the University’s First Graduate Comes Home

For Immediate Release
Thursday, June 9, 2005

The hand-crafted diploma of the first graduate of the university, John Sexton Shanly, has returned to the institution 82 years after the first college president, Charles Bunnell, issued it.
Brad Phillips, Shanly’s son-in-law, presented the diploma to UA President Mark Hamilton during a luncheon ceremony today held on the UAF campus. Phillips, who now lives in Seattle, married Shanly’s daughter, Patricia, also a student at the university. Phillips is a former state senator, candidate for  lieutenant governor and the founder of Phillips Cruises and Tours.

Hamilton said the diploma represents a significant piece of UA history. “We’re grateful to Mr. Phillips for making such a wonderful donation of a piece of his personal family memorabilia,” Hamilton said.
It was June 12, 1923, when Shanly received the diploma as the one-man graduating class of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, which later was renamed the University of Alaska.

“It seems fitting that on the 82-year anniversary of the first graduation, John Shanly’s diploma has come home,” Hamilton said.

Shanly was 28 when he enrolled at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. He had spent three years at Cornell University, but dropped out in 1917 to volunteer as an ambulance driver for the French Army.

After a series of adventures he came north to work on construction of the Alaska Railroad. He was in the Fairbanks courthouse filing for a homestead when he met Bunnell. When Bunnell discovered Shanly had three years of agriculture under his belt, he convinced Shanly to finish up his degree while proving up on his homestead.

Shanly went on to a varied career that included stints as school principal in Nenana, dairy farmer, foreign travel guide, Department of Agriculture inspector, creator of educational films and founder of the Wilderness College at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in New York. He died in New York in 1972 at age 77. According to UA historian William Cashen, Shanly took great pride in his status as the first graduate of the University of Alaska.


For historic photos of John Shanly, go to

For photos of today’s diploma presentation, go to http://www.alaska.edu/opa
For more information,call Kate Ripley, 907/450-8102.