Joe Usibelli Sr.


After transforming Alaska’s largest coal mine into a modern, successful enterprise, Joe Usibelli Sr. became one of UAF’s most generous supporters.

Usibelli’s father, Emil, came to Washington state from Italy in 1907 at age 14, moved to Alaska in 1935 and started a small coal mine near Healy after World War II began. 

When Usibelli’s parents separated, he moved to Fairbanks for high school, then earned a civil engineering degree at UAF in 1959.

In late March 1964, Usibelli was driving home to Alaska from Stanford University when border guards told him his father had died in a mine accident just hours before the Good Friday earthquake. So at age 25, with a young family, he found himself in charge of a company producing more than 300,000 tons of coal annually.

After struggling for a few years, he said, he found his feet. The company prospered. Usibelli turned over the presidency to his son, Joe Jr., in 1987 but remained board chairman.

In the early 1990s, family members decided they wanted “to do something for the university,” Usibelli said. They settled on the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Public Service Awards for faculty. The family also established several scholarship funds.

In 1998, Usibelli, then single again, married Peggy Shumaker, a UAF English professor who retired the next year.

Usibelli helped lead fundraising efforts for the University of Alaska Museum of the North addition completed in 2005. Then, in 2014, Usibelli and Shumaker gave the museum $1 million to anchor renovation of the Gallery for Alaska in the building’s older section. In 2017, UAF honored the Usibelli family as one of its three Philanthropists of the Century.

“You give back. You have to. Either that or you’re not doing it right,” Usibelli said in 2011.

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