Her mother was born in Norway and her father in Wisconsin, but he also was of Norwegian descent. "Ekte Norak", Lydia says, which means genuine Norwegian.
She grew up on the farm her father carved out of property purchased from the railroad, much like Alaskan homesteading. She had seven sisters and one brother.
Lydia earned a bachelor of science degree and a master's degree from the school of
home economics at Iowa State College. Then she taught five years in country schools
She was teaching home economics education at Iowa in 1925 when she saw a notice on the bulletin board saying Dr. Bunnell, then the President of the University of Alaska, needed two home economics teachers.
"Dr. Bunnell came for an interview on a hot June day. He just sat and wiped his brow.
I was hired."
"Camp cookery for men taking the mining short course was one of our special courses."
"My first summer in Alaska I took a trip by boat down the Yukon, from Fairbanks to Holy Cross. We came back on the steamer. There were 100 children at the school at Holy Cross then. Two French Sisters had the school. All the little Eskimos spoke English with a French accent!"
"In the summer of 1927 we advertised a summer session. Four women came from Seward, Anchorage, Nenana and Fairbanks. This was really the first Homemakers Short Course, which is now a large annual event on the campus. We were really bootlegging Extension work before it was authorized."
While teaching at the University in 1927, she married Hans Christian Fohn-Hansen, a miner and prospector. He died in 1938.
"When Smith-Lever funds became available in 1930, Dr. Bunnell asked me to do Extension work with Mr. George Gasser. Mr. Lloyd from Washington, D.C. came to install us. The first thing he asked was, 'Can you milk a cow?'. I could."
In the pioneering years of Extension work, Lydia, as home demonstration agent, 4-H agent, and her own best subject matter specialist, toured the state carrying teaching supplies, clothing, bulletins, pressure canner, can sealer, patterns, garden seeds, needles, yarn and probably a loom, on trips of up to three months or so. She traveled by dog team, by train, by plane, by boat, and on foot. When the Matanuska colony was started, Dr. Lydia was there working out of a tent.
Lydia was snowed in at Cantwell on the railroad for a week. The passengers lived in the railroad car. She had her loom and yarn with her, so she kept busy. "We had to break open the groceries in the baggage car. We had a mental patient with two guards. The lady was recovering from the DT's."
Here are some quotes from some of Lydia's monthly reports from the early times:
Sept 12, 1935 -- Arrived at Homer at 2:00am. Went ashore in small boat. Dumped baggage on the bench. Made my way in the moonlight to a farmhouse. Mrs. Shelfad made up a bed for me on the couch and I stayed till morning. Called at Mrs. Shotters and she and Mrs. Hansen arranged for me to stay at Mrs. Woodards and have meetings at Mrs. Hansen's.
In the afternoon Mrs. Sredlund took me to call on those living within walking distance. Called on Mrs. Sholin, Mrs. Groth, Mrs. Hansen and saw Mrs. Gust Anderson.
Oct 8, 1930. Palmer -- Callers to get dress patterns and pictures. One lady came for help on gloves. The commissary manager came for help in making out clothing orders. Reporter came for news items. In afternoon went to Camp 7 -- seven ladies present. Worked on tooling and knitting. In the evening, three ladies came for instructions in glove making.
Oct 9, 1930, Palmer -- Mrs. Eckert came for help in glove making. Two ladies came for dress patterns, one for a hooked rug pattern, one with a crocheted cap to copy, one for instructions for a sweater, one for instruction in knitting, one came to learn to spin, one for gloves and to finish a piece of tooled leather. In the afternoon called on eight women at Camp 9. Mrs. Reitan will have women together on Wednesday, October 23. Mrs. Rorrison came to see about using the loom.
In the evening -- one came to spin, one to tool leather, one to get instructions in knitting, and a man left an order for a pair of gloves.
Oct. 22, 1930, Palmer -- Mrs. Irwin called for leather. Mrs. Synder returned the loom and came for help on glove making. Set up the loom for Mrs. Ring. Delivered package to Mr. Ring. Tarp blew off tent and men came to fix it. Dyed purses for Miss Christiansen. Wrote two letters. Helped with knitting, two came for pictures. A very bad day and few people were out.
Oct 23, 1930, Palmer -- Worked on leather material. Mrs. Eckert called for glove material. Went to Camp 9 for meeting, but none came. Came home and worked on purse. In the evening delivered Mrs. Pierce's gloves. Did not make a record of number of callers, about 10. Too cold to sleep in tent.
April 23, 1931 -- Walked from Matanuska to Eklutna, 10 miles. Stopped to see Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Halversen at the Power Plant. They asked to have their names put on the mailing list.
Spent the afternoon visiting the school at Eklutna. Gave a talk to the children on nutrition and health, emphasizing the importance of cooperating with the school nurse … In the evening the two 4-H clubs had a meeting -- 30 girls present ….
Had a conference with Mrs. Charles Smith over plans for demonstration teams.
April 29, 1931, Palmer -- Sewing class 9-12, 12 present. At 2:30 gave demonstration on Fifty Ways to Improve the Living Room. Seventeen present. At 4:30 had an appointment with Mrs. Erickson to finish her pattern. At 10:15pm gave a radio broadcast on Simplified Meals, giving four recipes.
March, 1957 -- Mrs. Fohn-Hansen was elected a fellow in the Arctic Institute of North America in March of 1957.
Dr. Ivar Skarland, head of the University of Alaska's anthropology department, said: "Mrs. Fohn-Hansen was elected for her accomplishment in the North. For more than 20 years she had developed Extension Service educational programs to help Alaskans utilize local resources. She encouraged the use of native plants and wildlife, gardening and food preservation. She assists women with their problems in clothing and housing in Arctic and Subarctic. To help them she writes publications such as "Alaska Berries" and "For Wilderness Wives".
In 1957 she became the first Alaskan to receive the U.S. Department of Agriculture's superior service award, the highest honor bestowed by the Department upon an employee.
Lydia spent more than 30 years teaching Alaskans "How to live more abundantly", as Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson said when he made the award in Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Fohn-Hansen is considered to have influenced more people than any other woman in Alaska. She developed the University's home economics curriculum and came to be identified as the Cooperative Extension Service in Alaska.
She wrote about 200 bulletins, 250 circulars and 75 4-H project books, many of which
are still in use by the Extension Service today.
On May 18, 1959, Lydia became Dr. Lydia when she received an Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the University of Alaska.
She has spent a lifetime giving unselfish service to provide a more abundant home
life for Alaskans, both in major cities and in the remote villages, homesteads and
At the time of Dr. Lydia's retirement, the Fairbanks News-Miner had this to say: "…The satisfactions of a job well done -- of having made a worthwhile contribution to society -- these are among the real rewards Mrs. Fohn-Hansen is entitled to after three decades of outstanding services to the people of Alaska."
Friends from all over the state of Alaska presented Dr. Lydia with a round-trip ticket to Norway in July, 1959. Fittingly, the presentation was made during Homemakers Short Course on the University of Alaska campus, an activity she began in 1927. Contributors included homemaker clubs, 4-H clubs, and friends who knew her as a home economics instructor at the University or as an Extension worker later on. She was cited as "One of the most valuable persons living around us. She lives largely for others. The trip will give her an opportunity to let others do something for her." Besides the airplane ticket which took her to Norway by way of the North Pole and back home by way of New York and Iowa so she could visit her birthplace, others of her many friends purchased for her a railroad pass good on any Western European train so she could come down out of the air once in a while, they said.
It is characteristic of Lydia to explain her comments on her trip around the world which took her through Japan during anti-American rioting. Speaking of the college students who make up the majority of the rioters, she said, " The United States could do much to help the students who are the core of the unrest. Most of them are earning their own way through college, and it's a rough way."
It is difficult not to believe that, in nearly 40 years of working with people, Lydia didn't meet some unpleasant people and worked with at least a few people who were "difficult" as only independent Alaskans can be. But you would never find it out from Lydia. As the comment above illustrates, the worst she can say about rioting students is that they are having a hard time working their way through college.
Dr. Allan H. Mick, Director of the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station and former Director of the Extension Service, said of Lydia:
"To Mrs. Fohn-Hansens's faith in people and faith in Alaska can be attributed a large measure of security and satisfaction now enjoyed by Alaska's population -- better homes, more skillful use of local resources, more children attending schools and more families deciding to become permanent citizens of Alaska."
She was the first President of the Federation of Women's Clubs in Alaska. She is now a very active member of the Fairbanks Women's Club, the Soroptomists, the St. Matthew Episcopal Church, and many other organizations.
In 1962 she was an important influence in establishing a student loan fund at the University of Alaska.