From left, Ed Rasmuson talks about his family's history in Skagway; local residents look at the new Edward A. and Jenny Rasmuson Community Health Center designs; and Lance Twitchell leads the First Nation People Performers in a Tlingit prayer and song.

Future site of healing blessed, turned

Rasmuson Community Health Center construction begins

Story and Photos by Jeff Brady

With some ceremonial salt water from Lynn Canal mixing with the rain from above, a sprinkling of medicinal wood and tobacco added from the Yukon, and a gathering of Skagway citizens and several dignitaries from around Alaska, ground was officially broken for the new Edward A. and Jenny Rasmuson Community Health Center in Skagway on Aug. 12.
The ceremony was held under a couple of make-shift tents due to the weather, but many of the 50-60 souls stood outside them and didn’t mind getting a little wet.
Lance Twitchell, former Skagway Traditional Council president, opened with a prayer in Tlingit and was joined in song by dancers from the First Nations People Performers of the Yukon. Twitchell brought the salt water, given by an uncle from Haines, and the Yukoners brought the wood and tobacco to mix with the dirt being turned. This would help “bless this ground... so it will be a place of goodness,” Twitchell said, calling the new clinic a place “to take care of us not only when we are sick, but take care of us when we are well.”
He then called on everyone to rinse their hands in the salt water and sprinkle some on the dirt, “so we may live upon it as one.”
In another spiritual message, Rev. Ryan Mandeville of the Presbyterian Church read scripture about known healer Jesus Christ, and prayed that the new clinic “may be a healing ground for all who come through its doors.”
The messages then turned to a focus on community.
Mayor Tom Cochran said one group – the residents of Skagway – really made the new clinic happen.
“They’ve wanted it, they’ve needed it, and they are the ones who voted for it,” he said.
Borough Manager Alan Sorum thanked several in the audience including former manager Bob Ward, current and former assembly members, Rep. Bill Thomas, Bartlett Regional Hospital, the Department of Health and Social Services, the National Park Service, and finally, the Rasmuson Foundation and Denali Commission, which put up matching money. But he also returned to the voters, who overwhelmingly approved bonding the clinic and financing 50 percent of the project.
George Cannelos, federal co-chair of the Denali Commission, said they had helped build 80 clinics around the state. He said Skagway was the perfect example of the kind of community partnerships needed to build more clinics in a new age of tighter funding.
The final speaker was Ed Rasmuson, former chairman of the board for National Bank of Alaska and now head of the family’s Rasmuson Foundation. He outlined his family’s history in Skagway, and how the bank was started by his grandfather, Edward, in 1916. He said his father, Elmer, had bought the land now being turned, and that they discussed what to do with it in 2000 before he died.

Clinic Board President John Warder watches the Dawson Construction crew get back to work after the ceremony.

The bank was sold that year to Wells Fargo, but the land was eventually given by the bank to the City of Skagway for a clinic site, as directed by the Rasmuson family. The Rasmuson Foundation was enlarged by the merger “by about $400 million,” he said, and since then, more than $200 million has been distributed for various projects around the state.
The foundation has grown to $600 million, “which we are very proud of – and you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Rasmuson said. He added that the family and foundation are gratified to be part of public-private partnerships like the Skagway clinic.
Rasmuson and seven others (see photo on front) were then handed gold-painted shovels and asked to turn some dirt. A few flung it in the air, and after several clicks of the cameras, nearly everyone got out of the rain and headed to Skagway City Hall for a reception. A few stopped to rinse their hands in the salt water, while others stood a while longer under the tents and looked at the new clinic designs on a side wall.
John Tronrud said the community should be grateful for the Dahl Memorial Clinic Board, which took over operation of the local clinic from retiring Dr. Stan Jones of Haines 15 years ago. “That’s when this all began,” he said.
The Dawson Construction machinery then cranked up and it was noisy again on the job site, as it will be for several more months. Clinic Board President John Warder looked out over the site one more time and was the last to leave.