Photo by Julie Stricker.
Jennifer Shanly Boll holds a photo of her grandfather John Shanly, the first graduate from what is today the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She toured the university and visited a variety of agriculture programs, including the Georgeson Botanical Garden, on Aug. 1, 2023.
On a sunny summer day, Jennifer Shanly Boll retraced likely paths her grandfather took a century earlier as an agriculture student at the nascent Alaska Agriculture College and School of Mines.
She walked through the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, which was established in 1906. A century ago, researchers were looking at which grains and vegetables are best suited to Fairbanks’ sub-Arctic climate. In August 2023, Boll looked over the plots of wheat, barley, squash, corn and artichokes planted by researchers continuing that research, with today’s changing climate in mind.
“It’s so green and lush,” Boll said as she admired a row of hefty cabbages in the Alaska Harvest Collaborative garden. She then stopped to take photos of zucchini as research technician Kristin Haney led her on a tour of the farm buildings and research plots.
In 1923, the year Boll’s grandfather John Sexton Shanly ’23 became the very first graduate of the college, the buildings standing today on the farm were still a dozen years in the future. The college itself consisted of one building surrounded by wheat and clover fields on Troth Yeddha’, a hill overlooking the Tanana Valley and set a half-dozen miles west of the gold mining town of Fairbanks. Shanly was in the process of filing for a homestead at the bottom of that hill when he met college President Charles Bunnell.
World War I interrupted Shanly’s college career at Cornell University, where he studied agriculture. After the war, he decided to homestead in Alberta but ultimately ended up in Alaska working on the Alaska Railroad and as a coal miner in Healy before heading to Fairbanks.
Bunnell learned Shanly had already completed three years of agricultural studies and talked him into enrolling in the first class at the little college on the hill. He could live on his homestead and prove up while earning a degree. Shanly was 28. As he was the only senior (out of a total of 12 enrollees), he was promptly elected president of the student association.
Friends knew him as Jack, although Boll said she always called him Grandpa John.
Boll, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and works for a travel company specializing in continuing education, said her grandfather “was quite the Irish charmer.” She said he kept in touch with friends in Alaska throughout his life.
Shanly, originally from Long Island, New York, built two cabins on his homestead, living in one and renting out the other. One story from that time, which was during Prohibition, recalls a haphazard dinner party at his cabin, at which all the professors had to studiously ignore the beer brewing in a corner of the kitchen.
“Grandpa was always the life of the party,” Boll said.
On June 12, 1923, the headline in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner splashed across the top of the page in huge letters: “First ‘COMMENCEMENT’ of Farthest-North College at 8 O’clock Tonight.”
At the ceremony, Shanly was awarded a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. Today, the hand-drawn diploma is in the archives at UAF’s Rasmuson Library.
Shanly only spent one year at the Alaska Agriculture College and School of Mines before earning his diploma, but he was very proud of that connection for the rest of his life. (AACSM became the University of Alaska in 1935.)
He wrote to the Alumni office in 1941, “(I) feel that what little success I have reached due largely to individual instruction at U. of Alaska and kindly personal guidance of Charles E. Bunnell.”
He noted that his “only secret ambition is to become Alumni representative U. of Alaska in the States, duties of which I at present carry out unofficially, but vociferously with anyone who will listen.”
Today, the Shanly homestead is the site of businesses, homes and medical offices in College, Alaska, the general area east of University Avenue and College Road, bisected by the railroad tracks. Shanly Street runs east through the former homestead, crossed by Deborah, Hess and Hayes avenues.
He had three daughters. In a 1941 alumni questionnaire to the University of Alaska, he introduced them as Patricia, UA class of ’51; Barbara ’53; and Sheila ’55. Sheila is Boll’s mother.
Patricia did attend UA in 1947, frequently mailing copies of the school newspaper, the Polar Star, to her father to keep him in the loop with school activities. Boll has held onto several copies, now brittle and yellowed.
Even though he only lived in Alaska for a year after he graduated, serving as principal at the Nenana School, Shanly maintained close ties with the university throughout his life. He frequently sent letters and telegrams updating the administration on their first graduate’s accomplishments, both professional and personal. He later worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, making educational films, before starting a travel agency.
“He always had his fingers in a lot of different pots,” Boll said. “One little business here, one little business there.” He also became an avid photographer, but travel became his calling card.
She noted that her Aunt Patricia met Brad Phillips at the University of Alaska. She married Phillips, who later served as a state senator. He later became a significant force in Alaska tourism, starting the “26 Glacier Cruise” out of Whittier. Boll worked for Phillips Cruises and Tours during summers in Alaska and now works for an educational tourism company that frequently brings her back to the Last Frontier.
Shanly’s name was frequently misspelled as “Shanley,” including on the Alumni Association card he was sent in 1962. Shanly returned it with a note responding to an invitation to the 40th reunion.
“Yes, I understand that the Class of 1923, U of A, would consider being present in total for their — his — it’s 40th reunion. All they need is a little urging.
Sincerely, John S. Shanly, ’23
Class Historian, et.al.
P.S. Please make out a new card for me — never put an ‘E’ in an Irishman’s name.”
Shanly never gave up hoping his descendants would attend the University of Alaska. In 1966, he sent a letter to the president of the University of Alaska, including $1 toward the “matriculation fee” for his newborn grandson, “Mr. George Gregory Boll of Wellsville, New York,” with the request that Boll be enrolled in the UA College of Arts and Sciences, Class of 1988.
“It is interesting to note that unless we are mistaken, the young man will be the first to represent the 3rd generation to enroll in the University,” he wrote.
That $1 wish didn’t come true. Shanly died in 1971, and his grandson did not head north to college. But Alaska’s pull on the family is still strong. Boll said her campus visit would not be her last. She was only 9 or 10 when her grandfather died, but his larger-than-life personality and stories of Alaska have endured.
Shanly never lost his sense of humor. In a form responding to requests for nominations for the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1969, Shanly suggested himself. In the space allotted for outlining “specific and meritorious service” on behalf of the university, he wrote, “Sorry, we can not think of any reasons, maybe you can. The poor bastard has waited 46 years.”