Q and A Conversation with Jo Michalski: Ravenclaw

Headshot of Jo Michaelski, chair of the UA Foundation.
Jo Michalski, chair for Board of Trustees of the UA Foundation.

As a part of the Q and A series with university officials, each person will be asked to take a "sorting hat" personality test for fun and good measure. See below for results.

Interview conducted and written by Rachel Voris

Jo Michalski is an accomplished woman. She could easily spend all of her time resting and travelling after working as a retailer in Anchorage for 32 years. Instead, Michalski works hard as chair for the University of Alaska Foundation, trying to get others to believe in her concepts of giving. Michalski believes in education and believes in the UA, and she isn’t afraid to ask others to join her in her cause.  

The UA Foundation Basics

From the outside looking in, why is the UA Foundation important?  

Michalski: I think it’s important for staff to know that the UA Foundation is a private, non-profit entity that is operated as a public foundation. It is part of the university, but it is separate. It was established in 1974 to solicit donations for the benefit of the UA. In addition to soliciting funds, the UA Foundation also manages and invests those funds for the exclusive benefit of the UA. There are a lot of foundations that manage and solicit for the intent of the donor, but all of the money raised for the UA Foundation goes to the university.  

What is important for staff and people to know? 

Michalski: I want people to understand that the UA Foundation really encourages all private donations, including donations from staff and employees. What better place to remember in your will than the institution that you have worked for or taught at? The foundation can provide material regarding leaving goods like property or stocks and bonds, or leaving money in your will to benefit the university or setting up a scholarship fund to benefit UA students. All of those things can be accomplished through the UA Foundation. Education has supported you throughout your life. You can choose to give back to education by supporting the University of Alaska. I encourage everyone to be more aware about how they can participate and make a difference. Private philanthropy can make a really good university an excellent university.

Michalski has a tender moment with Grace Schaible. Shaible is an emeritus member of the UA Foundation and has made significant contributions to public life in Alaska and the UA. She is the first, and so far only, woman to hold the office of Alaska Attorney General.

In the Beginning

Can you tell me about your personal background?  

Michalski: Well, if you want a historical perspective, I started my professional life as a teacher in Minnesota. I taught in the Minneapolis school district while my husband attended law school at the University of Minnesota. In 1971, he graduated and we moved to Alaska. We thought we would come for two years then return to Minnesota. I went into the Department of Education to get certified to be a substitute teacher, and they had just received a grant from the US Department of Education for environmental education. 

I ended up getting hired as one of three environmental education educators. I did that for two years, and then we moved to Fairbanks. I took the job with me to Fairbanks and flew back and forth between Fairbanks and Juneau finishing the grant position. By this time my husband and I were hooked on Alaska and knew that we were not moving back to Minnesota! 

During that time I also attended UAF and received a master’s degree in secondary school administration, so I’m an alumnus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. We moved to Anchorage, and I had two boys, who are now both married and attorneys living in Anchorage.  In 1980 I opened my first retail business, and I retired a year ago after 32 years of owning multiple businesses in Anchorage. My husband also just retired. He was an Anchorage Superior Court judge for 27 years. 

Can you tell me about your experience as a retailer?  

Michalski: As a mom with two young children I was not interested in full-time work, and my sister had just moved to Anchorage, so we opened a business together. We also separately opened numerous retail businesses here in Anchorage. People in Anchorage know me more by my stores more than my work with the university foundation. 

And you started these companies just from scratch?

Michalski: Yes, and later sold some of them.   

Back to retail, in the late 90s my sister and I closed down Alaska Book Fair Company and Once Upon A Time because larger chain stores were moving into the area. I knew having a separate children’s bookstore would be impossible to compete, so we switched gears and opened a gift and card shop called Fly Paper. Both Flypaper and Classic Toys still are around today. We sold them around 2000. I also opened two women’s clothing stores—one in 1990 called Classic Woman, which is in midtown Anchorage, and another called Portfolio in 2000. Both of those stores sold a year and a half ago.  

Do you have stores outside of Anchorage? 

Michalski: Everything was here in Anchorage, and the stores were located mostly in midtown. 

My sister has a couple of downtown gift shops. It was just so much easier to have everything central in one location with raising a family. A lot of Fairbanks costumers came to the shops though.

Michalski stands at the Great Wall of China.
Michalski at the Temple of Heaven in Bejing China earlier this year.

Are you having fun being retired?  

Michalski: Yes, definitely. My husband and I just got back from China. We were there about a month. Every year Princess Cruises take their ships somewhere in the fall to cruise other places in the world during the winter here. One of the big ships leaves from Alaska. We left on the ship on Sept. 22, and did a 16-day cruise across the Pacific Ocean to Beijing. 

I would highly recommend this trip. The idea that we could get on in Whittier, Alaska, and get off in China was intriguing. In August we actually did another cruise with Prairie Home Companion. This year it was in the Mediterranean along the coasts of Portugal and Spain. My husband and I are looking forward to doing more travelling now than we have in the past. Both of our careers didn’t allow for much away time.

Michalski presides as chair of the Board of Trustees for the UA Foundation at the November meeting in Fairbanks.

Volunteer Work: The Curious Animal

How do you go from incredibly active retailer to becoming a person who is so involved within the community? 

Michalski: Well, that aspect of life actually came into play in Fairbanks. Living in Fairbanks I became involved in the Fairbanks League of Women Voters. I became chair of the league in Fairbanks and after moving to Anchorage was just as active in the Anchorage League of Women Voters. During the late 70s, the league of women voters was a great way for young women to become involved in the community. It was a real training ground for community activism. Many women my age were involved. I met people and enjoyed doing volunteer work and felt it was important.   

Volunteer work in Alaska is sort of a curious animal. Once you become involved and active you’re asked to do other things. If people find out you’re willing to sit on boards, they want you to sit on their boards too. Once you get started it, it just takes on a life of its own.  

What’s your favorite all time role that you served while volunteering?  

Michalski: I’ve enjoyed development work, which is basically fundraising for an organization. I find development/fundraising to be the most interesting. It is the most significant job that board members are asked to do: raise money for the organization and watch over how the money is used. I’ve always enjoyed the fundraising element of volunteer work and that’s something that not everyone enjoys. A lot of people go onto boards and dread that part of it.  

Do you have a gift for fundraising?  

Michalski: I don’t know if it's something I have a gift for; I just don’t mind asking people for donations. That’s key. I don’t mind it when others ask me for donations. I’m old enough that I can say yes, and I can define what level I can give at or say ‘no, but good luck in your fundraising.’ I figure other people that I might ask for a donation have that same ability to say no. The key to fundraising is to never take it personally. There are hundreds of wonderful, deserving organizations in this state. All of them need to raise money for their cause, but everybody can’t support everything.  

From left: Eric Wohlforth, Michalski and President Gamble talk together at a UA Foundation reception at the home of Carolyne Wallace in Fairbanks. The receptions are to build a bridge between current and former members of the UA Foundation and UA Board of Regents.

Give Where You Live

In terms of the University of Alaska Foundation, I understand that you have done a significant amount of work contributing and raising private dollars to support the work of the university. Why is education something you campaign support for? 

Michalski: It’s extremely important to support education. I’m a product of two state universities—the University of Minnesota and the University of Alaska—which is a big reason I’m going to work to help an institution of higher education become more secure through philanthropic donations. I support state institutions because they’re available to everybody and that’s very important to me. Very, very important. It is of the upmost importance for public universities to get private support. Donors sometimes think all programs are state supported, but really, public universities receive a small amount of state support and rely on private support. Institutions like the UA are relatively new compared to other state institutions, and they really need our help.  

I was once at an event and the speaker talked about the importance of supporting the university that was in the community where you had lived your adult life and made your livelihood. At first, I gave only to the University of Minnesota. They have a large endowment in their foundation, which is over 100 years old. While I still give to the University of Minnesota, my donations to the University of Alaska are much larger. This ‘give where you live’ idea is key. The idea that it's much more important to give to the public institution in the state where you’ve lived your adult life really resonates with me. This is where we’ve made our livelihood. Our adult children feel like they can go to school here because of the many programs with excellent reputations. What better way to make the University of Alaska a more viable institution then to financially help it? 

Did either of your children attend UA? 

Michalski: My youngest son attended UAA for three years and nearly graduated, and then he fell in love with someone who is now his wife. He followed her when she transferred to a state university in Washington. She had two more years of school and a scholarship there, so he followed her and ended up graduating from Eastern Washington University outside of Spokane.  

We sponsored brothers from the Republic of Moldova who both went to UAA for two years. The oldest one, Dorin Parasca, is now 40 and lives in Chicago. He had an article in the Accolades magazine in the 90s about his experience at UAA. He went to Stanford on a full scholarship. In the article, he says that his academic experience at the University of Alaska had actually been stronger than his experience at Stanford. At UAA he was taught by professors who were full PHDs as opposed to teaching assistants at Stanford.

Top: Cameron Wohlford gave the UA Foundation a tour of the new Life Sciences Facility being constructed at UAF. Below: Michalski stands with other foundation members during the tour.

Seek, Secure, Steward

Let’s talk more about the UA Foundation. What are some of your responsibilities as a UA Foundation trustee? 

Michalski: The mission of the UA Foundation is, 'to seek, secure and steward philanthropic support to build excellence at the University of Alaska.' Trustees 'seek and secure' by working with development staff at different campuses and the staff of the UA Foundation. Foundation trustees are strong supporters of the university, and they are also community leaders with connections to others who may be potential university donors. The Trustee's Investment Committee, along with investment professionals and Foundation staff 'steward' the philanthropic dollars coming into the university every year to provide for ongoing private support including scholarships, endowed chairs, buildings and program enhancement. 

What is one of your favorite projects you’ve done on with the UA Foundation? 

Michalski: Prior to becoming a UA Foundation trustee, I participated on the steering committee for the UAA 50th Anniversary Capital Campaign. I was already a donor to the university, and I was involved with other activities and organizations within the community. 

So was this a good fit? 

Michalski: I enjoyed serving on the Capital Campaign Committee and learned a lot about UAA and the entire UA system. When I was asked to join the Foundation Board as a Trustee I knew that I could contribute and be an effective Trustee.  

One of the ideas I recently promoted is designed to develop closer ties with current UA regents and also past Regents and Trustees. We've decided to host a reception for current and past regents and trustees three times a year - once each in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage. These events will be hosted by the Board of Trustees and coincide with our board meetings in each of the three communities. We are working to reconnect past regents and past trustees and keep them active within the university community.  

The first gathering was at my home, and there was a huge turn out. Trustees and regents from 20 to 30 years earlier attended and they will continue to be invited every single year to hear about what is happening at the university. It’s a simple thing to do and will hopefully have positive consequences by reconnecting those individuals who don’t have an active connection with UA anymore. 

How do you balance your time serving so many organizations?  

Michalski: I’ve been active in my community my entire life. In high school I was the first female student council president and then was also the first female to chair the Minneapolis/St.Paul Joint Student Council composed of student council presidents from each high school in the twin cities. I started learning how to balance my time many years ago. Currently, in addition to my commitments with the UA Foundation Board, I am a member of the Homer Pratt Museum's capital campaign committee. I also sit on the board of directors of the Bunnell Art Center, which is a non-profit art center in Homer. At the UAA campus I serve on the Advisory Committee for the College of Arts and Sciences.   

A Cinematic Conclusion

After taking the Harry Potter sorting hat quiz, Michalski was sorted as a Ravenclaw. It seems fitting as the emblem of the Ravenclaw is the eagle, which soars where others cannot fly as Michalski often does with her foundation work. Ravenclaws pride themselves on intelligence, creativity, individuality, wit and learning. Michalski leads the foundation using all of these qualities and uses them to further the greater causes of the University of Alaska.

Back to Top