Longtime Fairbanks resident Nancy H. Mendenhall, 91, died May 18, 2016, after a brief illness.
Nancy was born in 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Harold and Edith Harvey. After graduating from Wauwatosa High School, she attended Cottey College, a two-year women's college in Nevada, Missouri. At Cottey, she excelled in sports, served on the student council and was voted as the college's "All-Around Girl." Nancy always credited Cottey with transforming her from a shy, quiet young woman into an outgoing, energetic spirit with a sense of adventure.
After receiving her associate's degree, Nancy spent a semester at the University of Colorado, then transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson. She went home for the summer and worked in the Gettelman Brewery, which was owned by her cousin's family. But she missed Tucson and her friends in Arizona, so she moved back to Tucson and, together with two friends, purchased an ice cream store near the university. They renamed the business "The Eskimo Ice Cream Company," perhaps a harbinger of her future life in Alaska. Nancy and her friends ran the ice cream business for three years and were mildly successful. They undoubtedly would have achieved greater fortune had the freezers not broken down on a semi-regular basis, melting the company's supplies of ice cream.
Deciding it was time to finally finish her education, Nancy took the train north to Seattle and boarded the steamship Baranof to Seward, then made her way to Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad. She arrived at night and took a shuttle to the university. The next morning, when it was light, she went outdoors and saw the small campus and muddy roads. She thought to herself, "What have I done? I can't go back home." It didn't take long for her opinion to change. She spent two years at the University of Alaska, where she majored in education and was honored with the Boswell Award for the outstanding graduating woman. She spent her summers working as a guide at the Geophysical Institute and helped research the aurora during the winters.
After receiving her bachelor's degree, Nancy worked as a second-grade teacher at the newly-opened Nordale School in Fairbanks. She cherished her students, and even decades later, her face would light up when she discussed her teaching experiences.
Shortly before beginning her first year of teaching, Nancy met Bill Mendenhall, an engineer for Philleo Engineering Service, on a blind date. Love blossomed, and Nancy convinced Bill to play Santa Claus for her second grade class. Bill bought a Santa suit at the Ben Franklin store, and even if the suit didn't fit perfectly, the children were mightily impressed that their teacher knew Santa. Decades later, Nancy wrote, "Bill was such a great Santa Claus, I married him." Nancy and Bill were married in 1954 and together raised three children, all of whom have remained in Alaska. Nancy retired from teaching to be a stay-at-home mother.
Nancy lived in Fairbanks continuously for 65 years except for one year in Ithaca, New York, while Bill obtained his master's degree in civil engineering. She was deeply devoted to Fairbanks and was actively involved in numerous civic and community organizations throughout the years. She served on the Fairbanks School Board for 12 years from 1963 to 1975, was active in the Republican Women's Club and the Pioneers of Alaska Women's Igloo No. 8, and was a member of the P.E.O. Sisterhood for almost 70 years. She and Bill were honored to serve as Pioneer King and Queen Regent for Fairbanks in 2008.
A lifelong proponent of education, Nancy she continued to enroll in OLLI classes in her 80s and 90s. She donated generously to several causes and established an endowed fund at Cottey College in 1999. She and Bill also created a travel fund for UAF engineering students. She also was keenly interested in health food, and a dinner at her table usually involved ingredients such as buckwheat, wheat germ, black beans or home-grown cucumbers.
Nancy viewed life as a grand adventure and was unfazed by the hardships of Alaska in the 1950s and 60s. She was always eager to try new experiences and never ceased to amaze family and friends with lesser known talents. Even into her 80s, she impressed her grandchildren by walking on stilts, spinning a lasso overhead, and demonstrating how to crack a whip. When Nancy was about 18, she took flying lessons but later in life she disliked flying, especially in small planes. Nevertheless, she loved to travel and visited five continents during her lifetime.
Nancy is survived by her husband of 62 years, Bill, and three children: Bill Mendenhall, Susan West (Taylor) and Jim Mendenhall (Carol Howarth). She also is survived by six grandchildren: Ryan and Tara West, Erin Cravez (Aaron), and Trent, Sierra and Alexandra Mendenhall. She also is survived by her sister, Sis Werner, of Iowa, and her cousin, Nancy Gettelman, of Wisconsin.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, June 10, at Pioneer Hall in Pioneer Park. Burial will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 11, at Northern Lights Memorial Park on Yankovich Road.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Pioneers of Alaska, Women's Igloo No. 8, P.O. Box 70656, Fairbanks, AK, 99707, or Cottey College (re: "Mendenhall Fund"), c/o Office of Institutional Advancement, Cottey College, 1000 West Austin Blvd, Nevada, MO 64772.
Published by Daily News-Miner on Jun. 5, 2016.