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Donald Griffith biography

Donald T. Griffith
from biography by his wife, Ruby Denney Griffith, and also by his daughter, Jana Ariane Nelson (Janet Griffith)
March 2010

Donald Thomas Griffith was born October 3, 1912 in Wendell, Idaho, the youngest of six children.  His father was superintendent of an irrigation dam in the area and Don worked with his father at the dam during summer vacations.  He grew up loving outdoor life, hunting, camping and fishing with his father and brothers.  He attended the University of Idaho in Moscow and received a B.S. in Business.

Don worked for the Federal Departments of Agriculture and Interior for many years and married Ruby Denney in 1937.  His job took them to Logan, Utah, Berkeley, California and Portland, Oregon.  While in Logan, twins, Janet and Jack were born.

In 1948 Don accepted a position as a land planner with the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage, Alaska.  In August of 1948, he left Portland to drive north, leaving Denney and the children to come later.  Don, an insulin-dependant diabetic, drove alone to Prince Rupert, B.C., took the ferry to Haines, then on via the Alaska Highway (often referred to as the Alcan).  The highway was only six years old and was dusty, rough, crooked, and lonely.  Don camped along the way, there being at that time few accommodations available.  In Anchorage the first night he camped on the wooded hillside just off 15th Avenue and the present Minnesota Drive.
Don located the BLM office and checked in.  The next thing was to look for a home for the family and rentals were non-existent.  Finally he found an unfinished two-bedroom house on three wooded lots about a mile and a half from downtown Anchorage in Spenard (now known as Midtown).  That began a 35-year building project similar to that of his co-workers and many other Anchorage residents at the time.  Knowing little about construction, they read, measured, asked advice and helped each other in every conceivable area of house construction.  In Portland, Denney arranged for Sears to ship a kitchen sink, tub, toilet and commode, floor furnace, electrical wiring, plumbing fixtures, etc.

Denney and the children flew from Seattle to Anchorage on November 10, 1948 on a DC4 propeller plane, an 8.5-hour flight.  The plane landed at Elmendorf AFB in the late afternoon on that rainy November day.  The only other airport in Anchorage at the time was for small planes at Merrill Field.  Anchorage looked about at its worst at this time of year … gray and drab, bleak, dirty.  The road into town from Elmendorf was muddy and rough.  There were only seven blocks of surfaced road in the area, all on 4th Avenue.  Several days later winter arrived with below freezing temperatures and snow.

Don’s work with BLM was very satisfying.  His duties took him to many out-of-the way, interesting parts of the Territory and later, State of Alaska.  Land was opening up for homesteads, small tracts, camping and picnic sites and withdrawals.  He traveled the roads and helped choose spots where campsites would be constructed.  After Don’s death, a former co-worker wrote: 

“One of the things that Don did for BLM, and for the public at large, was to save the large tract of formerly withdrawn land south of Anchorage for institutional use.  In spite of many applications and considerable pressure, he managed to have the land informally designated as an ‘Institutional Reserve.’{Today that land supports The University of Alaska at Anchorage, Alaska Pacific University, Providence Hospital, The Alaska Native Hospital, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and the McLaughlin Youth Center}.  Unhappily Don never received the credit due him for that foresight.”

Don was a very talented artist, creating many cast figures, soapstone and woodcarvings. 

Denney received a bachelor’s degree in Education and a master’s equivalency in guidance and counseling.  She worked in the Anchorage School District and was a West High School counselor for many years before she retired.
In 1971 Alaska Airlines offered a trip to Russia, and that began the travel adventures of Don and Denney.  Don, who had been an amateur photographer for many years, took pride in the movies and videos he took of their trips.  They traveled abroad nearly every year after that until 1987.  Their travels included many countries in Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Outer Mongolia, China, Nepal and Bhutan, Turkey, Malaysia and Borneo, Indonesia, Africa, Australia, South America, the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, and of course, the Pribilofs. 

Don was kind, gentle, loyal, unassuming, thoughtful, loving, stubborn and patient.  He worked hard, played hard and enjoyed life.  At the time of his death, Don had been a diabetic for almost 50 years.  He gave himself an insulin shot every day during that time until he suffered a stroke in the early 1990’s.  Denney commented that she never heard him complain or make a fuss about it.  She thought that his long life and good health could be attributed to his being careful of his diet and his active life style.

Don spent many years enjoying the family Big Lake cabin, where he loved to fish, swim, water ski, snow machine, float in his raft, drive his motorboat, or relax with friends and relatives.  He and his BLM co-workers participated in many hunting and fishing trip throughout Alaska.   He shared his love and expertise of the outdoors with his children and grandchildren.

Donald T. Griffith family films collection is available for research at Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

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