Joseph E. Usibelli

Joseph Usibelli

Joseph Emil Usibelli was born Dec. 28, 1938, in a log cabin in a coal camp at Suntrana, Alaska, long before there was a road to Fairbanks. His parents, Emil Usibelli and Rose Peretti Usibelli Berry, cherished him.

He and his little sister Rosalie had true rural Alaska childhoods. He attended a one room school, and when he
finished his lessons, he did those of the next grade and the next grade. As a result, he skipped ahead. When he moved to Fairbanks for high school, he was well prepared academically but a little overwhelmed by the number of students at Old Main school.

He worked at the coal mine summers and vacations. Joe graduated early and started at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when he was 16. In 1959, he was a crack shot on the first UAF rifle team. (He might have learned this skill from his mother, who often shot the family’s moose, or his father, who loved hunting Dahl sheep with Joe.)
He did his pilot training and got his license through ROTC, and earned his degree in civil engineering.

At UAF, he met and married Shelley Reed. They started a family that grew to include six children and ten grandchildren, the pride of his life. After graduating from the university, he joined the Army, first in flight training and then as a tank commander.

After the Army, he went to his first year of graduate school in engineering at Stanford. He and Shelley were bringing their young family back to Alaska. At the Canadian border a note from the family’s attorney was waiting: “Contact me re: your father’s death.” The Good Friday earthquake had just happened and all phone lines were down.

At the age of 24 and after this profound loss, Joe took over running Usibelli Coal Mine. He often said that the earthquake didn’t cause his father’s death, it was the consequence of it. Joe brought the coal mine to strength by streamlining production, upgrading equipment and developing new markets. He was proud that when the
tipple burned down, he and his crew worked 48 hours straight so they didn’t miss even one shipment of coal. By the time Joe retired, he had built the mine into one of Alaska’s most prominent and prosperous businesses. He left UCM in the capable hands of his son Joe, who has preserved and built upon that success.

Over the years, he also ran an air service, a restaurant, a vineyard and scuba diving boats. His attitude was that if he didn’t know how to do something, he could research, learn, and figure it out. For fun, he always took wing, flying most recently a 1943 Grumman Widgeon and an amphibious light sport SeaRey aircraft, which he had great fun building. He was a member of the Alaska Airman’s Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association,
and AOPA.

In 1996, he was seated at a dinner party next to Peggy Shumaker. They began a conversation that has sustained and defined them ever since. In 1998, in a waterside ceremony on Whidbey Island, they married. Every day they learned more about each other, delighted and fortunate to love one another.

Joe always believed in giving to his community. He enjoyed supporting many local projects, including the UA Museum of the North, UAF, scholarship programs, and the Literacy Council.

Joe never worried. He’d say, “If there’s something I can do about this, l’ll do it. If there isn’t, no point worrying.”

After a long illness, Joe quietly stopped breathing on May 12, 2022.

UA Site named after Joseph Usibelli

Joseph E. Usibelli Engineering Learning and Innovation Building