Joseph Emil Usibelli

(December 28th, 1938 - May 12, 2022)

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Joe Usibelli

Joseph Emil Usibelli
Photo Credit: UCM

Joseph Emil Usibelli, a distinguished Alaskan coal miner and philanthropist, passed away in Tucson, Arizona, on May 12, 2022, after a long illness. His legacy as a pioneering miner embodies the profound impact that dedicated service and philanthropy can have on Alaska, its communities, and its people.

Early Years

Joseph Emil Usibelli was born on December 28, 1938, at minus 40°F, in a log cabin in the coal mining camp of Suntrana, Alaska, about 75 air miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Joe’s parents, Italian immigrants Emil Usibelli and Rose Peretti Usibelli Berry, had recently arrived in 1937 in Suntrana near Healy, where Emil worked as an underground miner for Cap Lathrop at the Healy River Coal Company. After being injured in an underground mining accident, Emil established a contract logging operation to supply timber for the underground coal mines in the Healy area. With the onset of World War II, Emil was hired by The U.S. Army Air Corps (USAIC) to conduct coal reserve work on military lands east of Suntrana. In 1943, Emil and partner T.E. Thad Sanford obtained a one-year lease to produce coal for the USAIC to supply 10,000 tons of fuel for a coal-fired power plant at Ladd Airfield in Fairbanks and for the first time in Alaska’s history, deployed open-cut coal-mining methods. More contracts followed. In 1948, Emil Purchased Sanford’s share of the business and formed Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. under the laws of the Territory of Alaska.

Emil and Rose Usibelli cherished their children, Joe and Rosalie, who experienced authentic, rural Alaskan childhoods.

Rose & Emil Usibelli

Rose and Emil, with their daughter Rosalie and son Joe, circa 1944.
Photo Credit: UCM

Joe & Rosalie Usibelli

Joe and Rosalie picking blue berries near Suntrana, circa 1946.
Photo Credit: UCM

Joe's education in a one-room school in Suntrana allowed him to excel academically; after swiftly completing his lessons, he eagerly embraced the challenges of higher grades, thus enabling him to skip ahead. However, after transitioning to high school in Fairbanks, Joe was academically prepared but self-admittedly, socially unprepared for the many students attending the old Main School (now the Fairbanks City Hall building).

Healy Alaska

Healy, Alaska, the coal mining town where Joe grew up; circa 1950s.
Photo Credit: UCM

Joe Usibelli High School

Joe Usibelli high school graduating photo,
circa 1955—the last Senior class at ‘Old Main’ in Fairbanks.
Photo Credit: Usibelli family

During summers and vacations, Joe worked at the coal mine, and he graduated early from the final senior class at Main School, beginning his studies at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks at the age of 16. He distinguished himself as a sharpshooter on the university's inaugural rifle team, a skill he possibly inherited from his mother, who was adept at hunting the family’s moose, or from his father, with whom he enjoyed hunting Dall sheep. Joe also completed his pilot training, earned his aircraft pilot's license through ROTC, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1959.

Joe Usibelli UAF Rifle Team

Joe Usibelli was a member of the first University of Alaska Rifle team, circa 1957.
Photo Credit: Usibelli family

While attending the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Joe met Shelley Reed, whom he married. Together, they began a family journey that would expand to include six children, ten grandchildren, becoming the centerpiece of his life. Upon completing his degree, Joe entered the U.S. Army, where he initially received training in fixed-wing aircraft flight and later served as a tank commander.

Joe, Shelly, Joe Jr.

From left to right, Joe and Shelly Reed and their first child, Joe Jr., circa 1959.
Photo Credit: Usibelli family

Lieutenant Joe Usibelli

Lieutenant Joe Usibelli (center) of the U.S. Army in training with armored formation in Washington State, circa 1962.
Photo Credit: UCM

After serving two years in the military, Joe embarked on graduate studies in engineering at Stanford University in 1963. By the spring of 1964, Joe, Shelley, and their growing family were returning to Alaska. Upon reaching the Canadian border, they were met with a message from the family's attorney:

“Call me re: your father’s death.”

Joe’s father, Emil Usibelli, had been killed in a heavy equipment accident at the mine just hours before the March 27, 1964, Great Alaska ‘Good Friday’ Earthquake.

At the Helm of Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.

At the age of 26, Joe assumed leadership of Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. (UCM). He frequently reflected that the earthquake was not the cause but a consequence of his father's death. Under his guidance, Joe enhanced the mine's operations by streamlining production, modernizing equipment, opening new markets, and pioneering land reclamation well before such practices were mandated by law. He firmly believed in market dependability as a cornerstone policy for UCM. Joe took pride in the resilience he and his team demonstrated when they labored non-stop for 48 hours to rebuild the tipple after it burned down, ensuring not one coal shipment was missed.

Joe Usibelli at the Mine

Joe Usibelli at the mine, circa 1970.
Photo Credit: UCM

In 1971, under Joe's leadership, UCM initiated a groundbreaking land restoration program, a visionary move that predated federal mine reclamation legislation (Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act or SMCRA) by six years and Alaska's state requirements by thirteen. To further this endeavor, UCM established Nuera Reclamation (Nuera), which is dedicated to researching and applying innovative reclamation techniques at the UCM mine site. The strategies developed by Nuera in Healy became instrumental in the reclamation efforts undertaken by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company during both the construction and maintenance of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). Furthermore, the restoration methodologies honed by UCM's program informed the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' approach to land reclamation.

Mine reclamation efforts

Illustration of more recent mine reclamation efforts, which have followed procedures worked out in the 1970s and 1980s at Usibelli Coal Mine.
Photo Credit: UCM

Throughout Joe's tenure as UCM's manager, the company significantly expanded its customer base to include six Interior Alaska power plants, boosting annual coal production from approximately 300,000 to 750,000 tons. Notably, in 1967, the Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) constructed a coal-fired plant adjacent to the mine, now known as Healy 1.
Besides GVEA, UCM supplied coal to various co-generation power plants capable of producing electricity and steam district heating. This is the most efficient way to utilize coal as an energy resource. These included the Fairbanks Municipal Utility System, now the Aurora Energy power plant, in downtown Fairbanks, the University of Alaska's Fairbanks campus plant, and military installations at Fort Wainwright, Eielson Air Force Base, and Clear Air Force Station, although the latter no longer sources coal from Usibelli. It's important to note that the Healy Clean Coal Plant (Healy 2) was not operational during Joe's leadership at UCM.

Healy Power Plant 1 & 2

Healy Power Plant 1 (foreground) built 1967 and Healy 2 (background) completed in 1998 at Healy.
Photo Credit: UCM

Under Joe's guidance, UCM transitioned its operations from the Healy Creek Valley to Poker Flats in the Hoseanna Creek Valley in the late 1970s. In a strategic move in 1977, Joe directed the purchase of a 2,150 ton, 33-cubic-yard capacity dragline for overburden removal, known today as the “Ace-in-the-Hole.”

More than just a big piece of equipment, this substantial dragline would change the character of UCM's mining operations. It significantly bolstered its capacity to double coal production in response to emerging markets.

Joe Usibelli, alongside John Sims, the Director of the newly established Alaska Office of Mineral Development, collaborated with Suneel Shipping Company (Suneel) to explore the development of a coal market for a South Korean power plant transitioning from oil to coal. A $21 million coal export facility was constructed at Seward, the Alaska Railroad's terminus, funded by private and public sources and operated by Suneel.

In 1985, UCM commenced coal shipments from Seward to the Korean Electric Power Company (KEPCO) in Honam, South Korea. This initiative nearly doubled Healy's coal production from 800,000 to 1.6 million tons of sub-bituminous coal annually. While UCM later expanded its coal markets to Japan and South America, South Korean power plants remained its primary customer. Despite facing a highly competitive market and opposition from environmental groups against coal mining in the U.S., the UCM-Suneel coal export project persevered for over 35 years, exporting millions of tons of Usibelli coal abroad and substantially contributing to Alaska's economy.

Early in his career, Joe innovated an automated parts selection method, the ‘mini-trieve’, revolutionizing the efficiency of maintaining the mine's heavy equipment inventory. This system significantly enhanced UCM's operational efficiency, and Joe took pride in demonstrating it to numerous visitors throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

After 23 years of leadership, Joe retired in 1987. He transformed UCM into one of Alaska's leading and most successful enterprises. He entrusted UCM leadership to his son, Joe Jr., who has continued to honor and build upon the legacy of his father and grandfather. Even after retiring, Joe continued his service to the coal mine as chairman of the UCM Board until his passing in 2022.

UCM Ace-in-the-Hole Dragline

UCM’s Ace-in-the-Hole Dragline was purchased in 1977 to increase coal production capacity for new markets and improve efficiency in land reclamation programs.
Photo Credit: UCM

Life ‘After Retirement’

Throughout his life, Joe ventured into various enterprises, including running an air service, a restaurant, a vineyard in Napa Valley, California, and scuba diving boats in Hawaii and the South Pacific. His guiding principle was straightforward: if unfamiliar with a task, one should diligently research, learn, and master it.

Joe's passion for aviation was strong. He frequently piloted a 1943 Grumman Widgeon and an amphibious light sport SeaRey aircraft, taking joy in building the latter. These flights often led to his Walker Lake cabin in the south-central Brooks Range with friends and family, where they relished fishing for lake trout, among other species. Joe, an active member of the Alaska Airman’s Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), fully immersed himself in the aviation community.

A significant chapter in Joe's life began in 1996 when he met UAF English Professor and Writer Peggy Shumaker, seated next to him at a dinner party. Their conversation that evening blossomed into a profound and defining relationship. Two years later, they were married in a waterside ceremony on Whidbey Island. Together, they continually discovered more about each other, celebrating their love and sharing life's joy.

Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker

Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker in the Brooks Range, undated.
Photo Credit: UAF Foundation

Joe was deeply committed to enriching his community, supporting numerous local initiatives, including the University of Alaska Museum of the North (UAMN), the University of Alaska Foundation, scholarship programs, and the Literacy Council. The extensive scope of charitable and educational endowments initiated by Joe and UCM cannot be fully detailed here, but a selection is highlighted.

Joe demonstrated his philanthropic vision early in his tenure at Usibelli Coal Mine. In 1966, just two years after assuming leadership, he founded the Emil Usibelli Coal Research Laboratory at the University of Alaska. The laboratory's first employee was Pemmsani (P. D.) Rao, who would become an emeritus professor of coal technology at UAF. By 1975, Rao had secured millions in research grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, significantly bolstered by UCM's annual matching funds. This support enabled the funding of many graduate students and ensured the coal research program's continuation well beyond Joe’s retirement in 1987.

Joe's commitment to philanthropy led to the creation of the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research, and Service Awards and numerous endowed scholarships that support dozens of students annually at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Furthermore, in 1991, the Usibelli Foundation was established with a $1 million endowment from the Usibelli Coal Mine. Since its inception, it has distributed over $3 million to nonprofit organizations, mainly serving Interior Alaska.

One of Joe's most significant endeavors was securing funding to expand the UAMN. With dwindling attendance and insufficient space for exhibits and research, UAMN initiated an extensive fundraising campaign, drawing from private, state, and local sources. This effort aimed to create a new two-story structure to attract more visitors and enhance the museum's display and research capabilities, including its mineral exhibits. In 1996, UCM and the Usibelli family committed $2 million to the museum's expansion efforts. Joe played a pivotal role in fundraising, contributing to a total that eventually exceeded $43 million. Completed in 2005, the expansion doubled the museum's size to 83,000 square feet. This space includes 35,000 square feet dedicated to public galleries, the Arnold Espe Auditorium, and the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery, alongside 48,000 square feet for laboratories, collections, classrooms, and offices. The design of the expanded museum mirrors the beauty of the Alaska Range, Mount McKinley (Denali), and the Tanana River Valley.

Aldona Jonaitis, Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker

L-R Aldona Jonaitis, director of the UAMN, Joe Usibelli, and Peggy Shumaker
at initial fund raising event for the UAMN expansion project, circa 1999.
Photo Credit: Fairbanks Daily News Miner

Throughout the UAMN expansion project, Joe was also on the University of Alaska Foundation’s board from 1983 to 2003, showcasing his dedication to advancing educational facilities and opportunities in Alaska.

UAMN Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony of the newly expanded UAMN, 2005.
Photo Credit: UAF

Throughout his service to Alaska, Joe received several prestigious awards and recognitions, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Business Leader of the Year in 1978, Alaskan of the Year in 1983, the Midnight Sun Boy Scouts Council’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 1988, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Philanthropists of the Year in 1992, an honorary doctoral degree from UAF in 1996, the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce’s George Nehrbas Volunteer of the Year Award in 2001, the AFP’s Eugene R. Wilson Award in 2013, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks ‘Philanthropist of the Century Award’ in 2017.

Joseph Emil Usibelli’s legacy

Joseph E. Usibelli passed away after a prolonged illness in Tucson, Arizona, on May 12, 2022, at the age of 83. At the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation (AMHF), he was known affectionately as just 'Joe,' and served for more than two decades as a director, assisting with museum display designs, helping with gold cleanups for a Foundation lease, and offering sound advice on nonprofit operations.

A simple yet profound philosophy characterized Joe's approach to life and work:

“If there’s something I can do about this, I’ll do it. If there isn’t, no point in worrying.”

Recognizing his impact, the University of Alaska named the School of Engineering and Mines Building on the Fairbanks campus the Joseph E. Usibelli Engineering, Learning, and Innovation Building on August 4, 2022. This facility expands the university’s engineering curriculum with 118,000 square feet of space, including a high- bay lab, 40 new laboratories, and numerous classrooms and offices for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. The Usibelli Building meets a silver standard set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program and contains sensors throughout the facility that engineering students use for their studies.

Joseph E. Usibelli Engineering

Joseph E. Usibelli Engineering, Learning and Innovation Center, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Photo Credit: Todd Paris, UAF

At the time of his passing, Joe was survived by his wife, Peggy Shumaker; his first wife, Shelley Reed; and their children: Joe and Marilyn Usibelli (Lexi), Cathy Usibelli (Trevor and Alyssa Fulp, Tara Fulp, and fiancée Jeff Rose, Jesse Fulp), Mitch and Michele Usibelli (Nathan, Jackie, Angelina), Anna and Ted Tavener (Micah, Marissa, Owen), Rob Usibelli, and Sean Usibelli; his sister, Rosalie Whyel, her husband George; and their kids and grandkids: Rick and Melissa Abel (RJ, Shelby, Kasey), Roslyn and Gary McMillan, Shelley and Eric Helzer (Alec, Evelyn, Luca), and Julia Whyel.

Written by Thomas K. Bundtzen; Reviewed by Joseph Usibelli Jr., Mitchell Usibelli, Cathy Usibelli, Lisa Cassino,
and Mitchell W. Henning

Usibelli Family

Usibelli Family Celebrating 75 years of the founding of Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.,
with Joe Usibelli seated front and center,
Peggy Shumaker behind in white sweater; circa 2018.
Photo Credit: UCM

Joe Jr., Emil, Joe

Left to right, Joseph Usibelli Jr., Emil Usibelli portrait, and Joseph Emil Usibelli, circa 2011.
Photo Credit: UCM

References Used in this Biographic Sketch

Bradner, Tim, 1998, Usibelli Mine Hopes South Korea coal export contract will be renewed: Alaska Journal of Commerce, page 15.

Capps, Kris, 2022, Joeseph E. Usibelli Dies at Age 83: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner obituary, 2 pages.

Craven, J.D., 1999, Recommendations Related to Expansion of the UA Museum: Memo summary from J.D. Craven, Chair of the UAF Master Planning Committee to Chancellor Marshall Lind, September 15, 1999, 2 pages.

Green, C.B., editor, 1993, Emil Usibelli Started Coal Mine at 50 Years Old: Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 13, pages 1-3.

Green, C.B., 1996, Memories Treasured--UCM History Project, Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 15, pages 4-5.

Green, C.B., and Phipps, Becki, 2000, Emil Usibelli, in, Bundtzen, T.K., and Hawley, C.C., editors, The Paystreak—the Newsletter of the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation, vol. 2, no. 1, pages 7-9.

Grimes, Marmian, 2022, UAF Honors Legacy of Joe Usibelli ’59: University of Alaska Office of Development, 3 pages.

Horton, Jameka Lache, 2022, Joseph Usibelli Chairman of the Board of Directors of Usibelli Coal Mine, Dies at age 83: KTVF News, 2 pages.

Leschper, Lee, 2022a, editor, Usibelli Coal Mine Announces Passing of Chairman of the Board Joe Usibelli: The Alaska Miner—Journal of the Alaska Miners Association, Vol. 50, No. 6., Page 13.

Leschper, Lee, 2022b, editor, UAF Engineering Building Named for Joe Usibelli: The Alaska Miner—Journal of the Alaska Miners Association, Vol. 50, No. 8., Page 8.

Roan, A.J., 2022, Joe Usibelli Leaves an Alaskan Legacy: North of 60 News—The Mining Newspaper for Alaksa and Canada’s North: 5 pages.

Staff, 1972, Usibelli Sponsors Open House: Fairbanks Daily News Miner ‘Oil and Resource Development’, May 16, 1972 p. A 1-2.

Staff, 1973, Alaska’s Biggest Coal mine: Fairbanks Daily News Miner ‘Oil and Resource Development’, September 18, 1973 pages A 1-2.

Staff, 1980, Mining in Healy Since 1918: Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 1 no. 1, 8 pages.

Staff, 1986, Mining Operations Highly Efficient: Usibelli Coal Miner, Volume 6, 12 pages.

Staff, 1999, Museum Pledge: Community Snapshots, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, August 9, 1999.

Staff, 2022a, Joseph Emil Usibelli: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Obituary, May 15, 2024, 2 pages.

Staff, 2022b, Joe Usibelli, University of Fairbanks (UAF) Centennial Committee, 2 pages.

White, Dan, 2022, From the Chancellor, May 14, 2022, University of Alaska Fairbanks Office of the Chancellor, 2 pages.

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