The University of Alaska’s first female civil engineering graduate figured that the field of study would fit her personality.
“I was really a tomboy, not a little girl,” Helen Atkinson recalled in a 2014 interview. “I liked to hunt birds and play baseball and do stuff like that. I wanted to work at something that would keep me outdoors.”
After graduating in 1936, the energetic young woman launched into a long and varied career that eventually branched into journalism and painting.
Along the way, she remained ever-interested and engaged in her alma mater. She served on the UA Board of Regents from 1954 to 1963 and later with many other university-related organizations. The University of Alaska Fairbanks named her a distinguished alumna in 1987 and granted her an honorary doctorate of laws in 2003.
Atkinson spent her earliest years in a rough mining camp in Arizona, where she remembered her mother once saved her younger sister from a rattlesnake with a pistol shot through a porch screen. When the family came to Fairbanks in 1928, it was a step up.
“We got to live in a two-story house,” she recalled. “It had running water and steam heat. We had never had that before.”
Atkinson’s engineering degree brought her work with many businesses and organizations, including the Fairbanks Exploration Co., Boeing Co. in Seattle and the City of Fairbanks. She began writing about the oil industry in the 1950s and covered construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Atkinson, who married four times, had four children of her own. She gained four stepchildren from her 1975 marriage to Con Frank, a UA graduate, former UA regent and construction company owner. He died in 2009, and Atkinson died in 2014.
More online about Helen Atkinson
- An interview with Robert Hannon in March 2014, a few months before her death
- A profile on the UA Journey site written by her daughter
- An obituary in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner