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Merritt Randolph Helfferich


1935 - 2019
Merritt Randolph Helfferich Obituary
Merritt Randolph Helfferich, 83, of Fairbanks and Gila, New Mexico, died in Albuquerque from respiratory failure May 2, 2019, after a remarkable life. Born Aug. 10, 1935, in Hartford, Connecticut, he was raised in Bath, Pennsylvania, by his father, the Right Rev. Reginald Helfferich, and his mother, Virginia Merritt Helfferich, whose large, extended family gathered in Marlborough, Connecticut, during summers.
Adventure began early: At 9, Merritt survived the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fire in Hartford by climbing to the highest bleachers, along which he and friends ran freely and escaped.
From his parents and grandparents, Merritt inherited love of ideas and travel, practical curiosity about how things work, and dedication to charitable activism and community service. His maternal grandmother, Alice Pattison Merritt, was the first woman elected to the Connecticut state Senate. His father was committed to the post-World War II resettlement of displaced people, a calling that meant that, by Merritt's high school graduation in St. Louis, the family had moved each year of the past three. Merritt's mother largely raised him and his sisters, and he also inherited her playful nature and love of literature, especially whimsical poetry and works for children. Merritt often recounted humorous escapades from throughout his life, including practical jokes with his beloved sisters, Debbie, Alice and Honey.
After Merritt's several false starts in higher education, then-current headlines about the Territory of Alaska becoming a state attracted him to the small territorial university in Fairbanks. He bought a brand-new, 1958 red Porsche Speedster convertible and drove some 4,500 largely unpaved miles northwest. From his first days in Fairbanks, Alaska permanently invigorated his life and he thrived there.
In 1959, he married Carla Ostergren, from Connecticut, and in 1961 they had their first daughter, Deirdre. They built a spectacularly situated log home on Ester Dome, from which, Merritt would later explain, the view south toward the Alaska Range included the same number of square miles as the country of Ireland. During these years, Merritt was a volunteer fireman, hosted late-night jazz radio, participated in college theater, edited the student newspaper and studied silversmithing for a year in Copenhagen. He grew close with artists, writers and the community of innovative, hard-driving scientists at the Geophysical Institute, a rising research center for subjects related to Arctic and Antarctic land, ice and atmospheric sciences. In 1966, he graduated from UAF with a B.A. in English literature, and signed on to help survey the new power line to Healy.
Shortly thereafter, he began a 30-plus year association with the GI, surveying the site for the new, audacious Poker Flat Rocket Range, which had won a federal, multimillion-dollar research grant before it existed. Merritt became its ballistic meteorologist, computing rocket payload weight, wind direction, speed and other variables. This was tricky, and he once had to notify the Yukon Territories government that Alaska had inadvertently fired on Canada and was sorry.
In 1969, the year his second daughter, Tryntje, was born, Merritt was an ice technician aboard the SS Manhattan during the Humble Oil Corporation and University of Alaska's joint ice-breaking voyage, seeking a Northwest Passage for transport of Prudhoe Bay oil. The GI later posted him to Antarctica. He had helped develop an all-sky camera that could film the aurora, and installed the cameras in numerous remote places, including Antarctica and on T3, a large floating ice island in the Canadian Arctic. His South Pole service resulted in a glacier bearing his name at 70°38'S 159°50'E in the USARP Mountains. He later rose to the position of the GI's head of Technical Services, the office providing all field-based research project support.
For fun, Merritt sailed his 24-foot Westerly sloop from Vancouver to Valdez Arm, taught celestial navigation for 10 years, gave workshops about humor in the workplace, flew the farthest-north-ever hot air balloon off the coast of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), and co-founded the biggest sporting event in Alaska's history at the time, the Great Tanana River Raft Classic. This 50-mile float to Nenana started as a bar wager, but four years later it was recognized by Gov. Eagan's declaration of Alaska's State Raft Race Day.
Merritt and Carla divorced in 1977, and he later married Deanne Haseltine. This marriage didn't last, but he kept up with his stepdaughters, Suzanne and Mary Helen. In 1985, Merritt married April Crosby, and together they flourished for the rest of his life.
After an interlude as assistant to UAF Chancellor Pat O'Rourke, Merritt returned to the GI in 1988 as the go-to man under Director Syun Akasofu. In 1990, he earned an M.P.A. from Harvard's JFK School of Government, and before retiring in 1994 directed a major expansion of UAF's research facilities, the International Arctic Research Center's Akasofu Building. In 1991, Merritt helped start Fairbanks' Chena Riverfront Commission, on which he served many terms. In 1998, Merritt formed Innovation Consulting, and for 15 years worked with nonprofit organizations and helped Native-serving institutions with educational initiatives.
Together, Merritt and April walked across England, New Zealand and Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostella; cycled through Eastern Europe, France, the Netherlands and Canada; and sailed in Greece and Mexico. They dug dinosaur fossils in the Brooks Range for the University of Alaska Museum and taught English in El Salvador. Merritt and April eventually abandoned Fairbanks winters and welcomed a parade of Alaska friends to their snowbird home in Gila, New Mexico, where they found another loving community of huge-hearted friends and compelling social service. Upon learning of Merritt's death, one longtime friend wrote, "If there's life after death, it's Merritt's soul I want to meet on the other side."
Merritt is survived by his wife, April; daughters; sisters; numerous nieces, nephews and cousins; former wives; and many, many friends. His memoirs will be completed. A memorial gathering for family and friends will be held  from 4-7 p.m. June 21 at Raven Landing. Contributions may be sent to Interior Alaska Land Trust at www.interioraklandtrust.org or the Merritt Helfferich Endowment Fund at www.gilavalleylibrary org.
Published in Daily News-Miner on June 2, 2019
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