Building the Final Frontier

An Alaskan Adventure

In 1962, four new Wentworth graduates—John Mancuso, John McGrath, Arne Ojala, and Ken Rydberg—packed up and headed to Alaska. They sought the adventure of Alaska’s untamed wilderness and steady work. And just three years into statehood, its massive infrastructure investments offered the young men even more: the chance to lay a foundation for America’s 49th state. Here, an oral history of their early years. —DAN MORRELL AND KIMBERLY THORPE

Alaska1-1

Illustrations by John Ritter

ALASKA CALLS

John McGrath, CHE ’62, former construction manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation: I had a neighbor named Helen Eaton who had a half-brother named Harry Leonard. Harry lived in Alaska—had been there since the 1920s or 1930s. Up in the Arctic in a little town called Wiseman [1]—a town of six people. Two hundred and fifty miles from Fairbanks [9]. I had mononucleosis when I was 14, and Mr. Eaton would come by to deliver the milk to [my parents’] dairy. One day, he knew I was ill, and Helen sent over a six- or ten-inch stack of Alaska sportsmen magazines that Harry Leonard had sent to his mother. So I spent the next month in bed with mono and discovered Alaska. And decided then that I was going to Alaska.

Arne Ojala, CHE ’62, retired founder of a civil engineering business: Somehow we got talking about it in class. Maybe that’s the “last frontier” kind of a thing. Sort of an adventurous idea. It was the last area in the US that had untamed wildness to it and that appealed to us.

John Mancuso, CHE ’62, former engineer, City of Fairbanks (AL): I think it was in our statics class. I don’t remember the professor’s name. But he would just show us  slides of Alaska, of the area. The wilderness, the vastness of Alaska at the time—the animals, the hunting and fishing. I was into that kind of stuff.

McGrath: There’s always the black sheep in every small town in New England and every other place that wants to go to the end of the road and see what is there. The people running away and running towards were both going there. 

THE VOYAGE
McGrath: I bought a brand-new $1,725 pickup truck. My grandfather and I built a camper top on the back out of plywood and canvas. My mother gave me a bunch of kitchen utensils, and on July first [of 1962], I left West Newbury for a five-thousand-mile drive.

Ken Rydberg, CHE ’62, retired structural design consultant: I had a ’50 Chevy. I started driving that with Arne. We got to Detroit, and my uncle was a designer for General Motors, and my mother had called him up, worried about me making it up there with this ’50 Chevy. He convinced me to sell that Chevy, and he lined us up to deliver a truck to a surplus yard owner up here.

Ojala: It was a deal where you deliver a truck to Alaska, and you paid for the gas and basically you get free transportation.… We delivered it to a store location, and that was it. After that we were on foot.

Mancuso: I bought an old Volkswagen Bug. And I got someone from the Cape to do the trip with me—one of Arne Ojala’s friends. The trip took about two weeks.

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7 comments

  1. fatima /

    Nice article, very interesting! Thank you for covering this story.

  2. mike /

    Great story, it is nice to see such events recorded.

  3. Alaskan native /

    we all love them and their contributions to our world

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