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

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

This story was reprinted from the May 15, 2005 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner by Dermot Cole

THE GRADUATES who are to receive their diplomas today at the Carlson Center from the University of Alaska Fairbanks are following in the footsteps of John S. Shanly, the one and only member of the Class of 1923.

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

Shanly occupies an important place in Alaska history because he was the first graduate of the Alaska Agricultural College & School of Mines, the school that became the University of Alaska in 1935.

Shanly had a homestead in College, which he sold to UA President Charles Bunnell in 1936, and his presence is recorded through the street and subdivision that bear his name.

What is not so well known is that Shanly failed to convince his key professor that he deserved his degree.


According to recollections of Jessie Bloom found in the University of Alaska Archives, the agriculture professor believed that Shanly "was not fit to graduate" with a degree in agriculture.

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

The professor asked the college secretary to "put on the records that he was opposed to having a candidate given a diploma unless qualified."

Bloom's husband, Robert Bloom, was on the board of trustees of the college in 1921 and had been a consistent opponent of Bunnell's, going so far as to try to get him fired.

Shanly's grades during his one year at the Fairbanks college are lost to history, but more is known about his academic record at Cornell University in New York before World War I. In a recent paper on Shanly's life, retired New York teacher Thomas Patton writes that Shanly was never a stellar student.

In many of his classes he was lucky to escape with a "D" and he failed others. He was facing his second expulsion from Cornell in 1917 when he joined the Canadian Army for a brief period. In 1918, he signed up with the U.S. Naval Air Corps and was an aviation cadet at the end of the war.

Hoping to make some money, he headed to Alaska to work on the Alaska Railroad, which he did for about a year. Then he mined coal in Healy until 1921 and later filed for a homestead on 161 acres adjoining the new Fairbanks college before it opened.

He built two small cabins, which he dubbed "Paradise Lodge" and "Sunset Lodge." He lived in one of the lodges and rented out the other one, but he never paid the $1,200 bill for supplies from the Independent Lumber Co. and the firm took title to the cabins in 1926, Patton wrote.

UA historian William Cashen wrote in 1972 that as the only upperclassman in the new one-building college, Shanly was elected president of the student association.

He struggled with organic chemistry, Cashen wrote 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."

In Cashen's words, Shanly "was able to squeeze by" and he received his hand-made diploma on June 12, 1923, in the college's only building.

It was Jessie Bloom's contention that Shanly squeezed by only because Charles Bunnell, president of the college, overruled the professor and insisted that the diploma be granted. Bunnell wanted to have at least one graduate every year, starting the first year, Bloom wrote.

This impression was seconded by Margaret Murie, who graduated from the college the next year. She said she struggled with math, but "Dr. Bunnell had such touching faith in me and such a strong desire to have a graduate every year."

His academic struggles behind him, Shanly went on to pursue a career with jobs as varied as principal of the Nenana public school, dairy farmer, travel guide on foreign tours, travel agent, inspector for the Department of Agriculture, creator of educational films and founder of the Wilderness College at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in New York.

Shanly died at age 77 when he was struck by a car near his New York home 33 years ago.

"He took his greatest pride in the fact that he was the first graduate of the University of Alaska," Cashen wrote.

John Shanly is mentioned in this article:

UA's First Graduate, John Shanly