Beloved historian and UAF professor Terrence Cole dies at 67

A white man smiling with a baseball cap
Terrence Cole in 2008 (Photo courtesy of UAF Arctic and Northern Studies)

Fairbanks historian Terrence Cole has died. Cole succumbed to cancer at home in Fairbanks surrounded by family Saturday. Both scholarly and affable, Cole was a beloved and respected professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he taught for 30 years and penned key works about Alaska.

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Terrence Cole and his identical twin brother Dermot were born 67 years ago and raised on a rural Pennsylvania farm. Their father, an engineer, believed in hard work and discipline and instilled those values in his six children, in sometimes unique ways, said Dermot in a 2018 interview with KUAC.

“He was a tough character in some ways, thought we weren’t tough enough, so after church on Sundays, we would have to box in the living room with a makeshift boxing ring,” he said.

The Coles also experienced tragedy at nine years old, when their mother died of breast cancer.

“It was a traumatic event and it made it more so by the decision to never ever talk about it,” said Dermot.

But the twins said their father also believed in education, and all the children would eventually pursue college and professional careers. In fact, it was the oldest brother Pat’s search for a school that would draw several of the Coles north to Fairbanks and the University of Alaska.

Two white men stand in front of a colored wall
Terrence Cole (right) and his brother Dermo.t (Photo courtesy of Sarah Manriquez)

“UAF was a good bargain, I think as it is today, frankly, and you looked at the out-of-state tuition and what he could afford and, you know, hatched this plan coming up here,” said Terrence at the same 2018 interview.

Pat, Dermot and Terrence all drove to UAF and set down roots in the community. Pat would eventually become a city and borough administrator. Dermot pursued journalism, becoming a popular reporter and columnist for The Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. Terrence followed history. He received his doctorate at the University of Washington, even as he worked as an editor at Alaska Northwest Publishing. He says that dual experience influenced his approach to history.

“They wanted to do a book on Nome, and I thought, ‘Well, okay, I can do a dissertation on Nome,’ but I never told the publishing company I was doing my dissertation on Nome, and I never told the university I was also writing a book on Nome… the university would say, ‘Well, it’s not serious enough.’ And the publisher would say, ‘Well, it’s too serious,'” said Terrence in the 2018 interview.

Terrence returned to UAF in 1988 as a history professor.

One of the students, Mary Ehrlander, also became an historian and eventually a colleague at the school. In a 2019 interview for the publication of The Big Wild Soul of Terrence Cole, a collection of writings by his students and colleagues, Ehrlander said his ability to write clearly and compellingly without jargon is a hallmark of his style.

“He really is a narrative historian and has always emphasized the story because, as he has said to our students, that is what differentiates humans from every other animal is that we tell stories,” she said.

Besides writing a series of books about notable Alaskan institutions and personalities, Terrence served on the board of the University of Alaska Press. Nate Bauer directs the press and he said Terrence’s engaging style sometimes overshadowed his serious scholarship.

“He was a special series editor for our classic reprint series for a lot of years,” Bauer said. “And he brought just a remarkable amount of research about the history and the development of Alaska in the 19th and 20th centuries, none of his work as a scholar was lightweight.”

Terrence’s lively, engaging style was also reflected in his teaching. Although, he admitted, it sometimes led to unexpected problems.

“Largely, I would set the classes up so that people didn’t know what I was going to do next. Now, this is sometimes a problem when you forget what you’re going to do next, which was sometimes what happened to me. I get so carried off in that bit of I was doing,” he said in the 2018 interview.

Nonetheless, he received awards for his teaching and contributions to history, often, along with his brother Dermot, who has also authored notable books. Three years ago, Terrence was diagnosed with inoperable gastric cancer. Throughout his illness, he retained his humor and continued to work on his next book. On the occasion of his retirement at UAF two years ago, he found solace in the writing life.

“I heard an author one time who referred to his books … as his colleagues and when you make your contribution to the literature, that you’re in a conversation across the ages,” he said. “I like the idea of being in the conversation with people even after you’re gone, when you have a longer frame of time reference because our lives are also short. That’s the best we can do is just put our little piece into the conversation.”

Terrence is survived by his wife, Gay Salisbury, and three children, Henry, Desmond and Elizabeth.

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