FAIRBANKS — When Bill Mendenhall started his engineering and surveying career, slide rules were the mathematicians’ tool of choice, and it would be four decades before lasers started to replace steel measuring tapes and plumb bobs.
It was 1948. Mendenhall recently served his country as a weather and photo-intelligence officer during World War II, a role he would reprise during the Korean War. He was one year away from a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University (where he also would earn his master’s) when he traveled to Fairbanks to work for an engineering outfit.
That job started a chain of events resulting in Mendenhall’s 50-year teaching career at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, his decades of community service and his incalculable impact — be it by slide rule or super computer — on Fairbanks and beyond.
On Friday afternoon, Mendenhall, 94, just got home from the Interior Republican’s luncheon. Sharply dressed in a grey-blue sweater and slacks, his strong handshake and brisk stride befit a much younger man — even more impressive considering he suffered a compression fracture in his back last summer.
He recalled being approached to teach a class at UAF in 1955. The prospect never had occurred to him at the time, but he thought it would be fun to try for a year.
“When I first started teaching, one of my classes had three students in it,” he said.
Three pupils blossomed into more than 3,000, including his two sons. Mendenhall officially retired in 1987, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he put down the chalk for good. He has no strong reason for why he found teaching so fulfilling, saying only, “I liked interacting with the students.”
Mendenhall’s favorite class to teach was surveying, because by a certain point, “we’re going outside no matter what the weather is,” he said. Mendenhall frequently injects his speech with expression and excitement, and he’s quick to spell out proper nouns during casual conversation.
Aside from students, many local organizations owe Mendenhall thanks. He was influential in starting local chapters of the national engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi; a national interdisciplinary honor society, Phi Kappa Phi; and the Society of Women Engineers. “I’m proud to see more and more women (engineers),” he said, noting there were very few when when he began teaching.
Mendenhall also was one of three founding members of the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation, after St. Joseph’s Hospital was destroyed by the 1967 flood.
“I was interested in hospitals, I wanted to see them work. I had no medical background whatsoever, I just wanted to see something get built,” he said. Work they did, as Mendenhall helped usher in a new era with the opening of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in 1972.
Today, Mendenhall still engages in community service with his time on the platting board — a borough commission that works on subdivisions and land usages — a commission he served on long ago, in the 1950s. “A lot of people don’t realize, they have a piece of land and want to sell it. The hill is too steep, you’re not going to be able to drive. And you don’t want your septic 40 feet away from somebody’s well,” he said.
Luckily, he portrays the board as less controversial now then it was in the ‘50s, when someone threatened to kill multiple board members. “We should leave this fellow alone,” Mendenhall thought at the time.
Mendenhall has many, many awards and accolades to list. Among them: induction to the Surveying and Mapping Hall of Fame in 1996, a classroom named in his honor at UAF and having the Fairbanks survey of 1910’s Initial Point Marker on Birch Hill dedicated to him.
One incredibly prominent landmark that Mendenhall recently learned may bear a distant connection is Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. According to genealogy research by his son, Mendenhall suspects the glacier is named after his fifth cousin, three generations removed. “There’s a tie, but it’s pretty tenuous,” he said with chuckle.
Both humble and proud, Mendenhall isn’t afraid to reflect on the past or look to the future.
“As you get near the end, you hope you’ve done something that’s fruitful and good. I hope I haven’t hurt anybody,” he said.
When it all boils down, Mendenhall will likely be remembered first and foremost as a teacher. And the lesson he has to share in 2018 is as meaningful as ever.
“Try something,” he said. “If you find it doesn’t work out, that’s alright. But once in awhile, you’ll hit on something.”
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.