NANA Development President Profiled
Fairbanks, AK April 12, 2010
All the years she was growing up, Helvi Sandvik, '86, and her family spent summers in the village of Kiana, on Alaska's Kobuk River, and the school year in Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb. She became an adult with feet planted solidly in both worlds, as the Anchorage-based CEO of a major Alaska corporation with close ties to her family's rural background.
"It was a Huck Finn kind of life" during summers in Kiana, Helvi said. Every year she and her brothers and sisters fished and hunted and explored all the riffles and eddies of the Kobuk. "They were wonderful, wonderful adventures." Although she had exposure to different facets of the world because of the time in Illinois, Helvi said Kiana has always been the place she considers home.
"My parents broke their necks to be sure we went back and forth every year," she said, so that connections with Kiana and her mother's Inupiat roots were maintained.
Helvi's father was Peter Olaf Sandvik, the son of Matanuska Valley colonists. He completed two bachelor's degrees at the University of Alaska, in geology in 1950 and mining engineering in 1951, and went on to earn a doctorate in geology at Stanford. At UA he met his future wife, Ruth Blankenship from Kiana, who in 1951 also graduated from UA with a bachelor of arts degree. Peter traveled a lot in his career but he, Ruth and their seven children spent a portion of every year in Kiana at the Blankenship Trading Post alongside the Kobuk, which was owned and operated by Ruth and her cousin Rob Blankenship. Blankenship died in 2001 but Ruth runs the trading post to this day.
Several times every summer, Rob would pilot a barge and the Helvi Kay -- the trading post's small tug -- down the river to Kotzebue to get supplies. When the children were sufficiently well behaved, they got to go along.
"Those were just heavenly trips," Helvi said. They would wait for the weather to clear so they could safely cross the sound to get into Kotzebue, which to the children seemed like the big city.
"Rob would let us buy Archie comic books. That was not useful reading as far as my mother was concerned, so we would hide out in the bow of the tug to read our comics," Helvi laughed.
College choices helped define the path
Helvi chose Kalamazoo College in Michigan for her bachelor's degree in economics, which is where she met Kelly Culver, her future husband. The couple moved to Alaska, where Helvi went to work for Maniilaq Association. Helvi felt she needed to continue her education, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to be a lawyer or go into business.
"I realized if I went to law school I'd have to leave Alaska," Helvi said, which helped tip her decision. She opted for a master's degree in business administration at UAF. Because of what her parents had told her about the school and the research she'd done, she knew she could get a good education there.
"Going to UAF allowed me to stay in the state, keep in touch with what was going on in Alaska and not feel as though I was missing things.
"It was the best decision I ever made."
A young widow
Helvi's husband, Kelly Culver, died of heart failure in 1999, leaving her a single parent to three children; the youngest was only 3 years old at the time.
"I work very hard to balance my life," Helvi told an Anchorage Daily News reporter in 2004. "My husband, prior to his death, was the parent who stayed at home and so when I became a widow, I really had to step back and say, […] how do I continue to succeed in my profession […] and still make sure I provide the proper parenting responsibility? So I work very hard to make sure that every free moment that I have is devoted to my children."
She still spends as much time as she can in Kiana, helping her mother run the trading post. Bob Marovelli, '50, was friends with Peter Sandvik while they were students at UA. He has maintained a close relationship with the family, and after Peter's death in 1995 he started going to Kiana part of every year to help Ruth run the trading post.
"I help with the 'donkey' jobs," Marovelli said.
Helvi appreciates the contributions Marovelli and other UAF alumni have made to her family.
"My parents both graduated from the University of Alaska, and my entire life there were these very accomplished people in my life who they met in college," Helvi said. "One good example is Bob Marovelli. He's just one of many people my parents met at UAF that were lifelong friends, all of whom achieved significant things in their professional lives.
"It seems that the University of Alaska was good at attracting and developing talent," Helvi said.
Marovelli in turn tells admiring stories about Helvi's abilities, like how she can expertly maneuver a large jet boat to haul visitors and supplies up and down the Kobuk. All the Sandvik children were taught as youngsters how to navigate the river. They were raised to be exceptionally self-sufficient and independent.
"When Helvi does something, it's all out. She just gets in that boat and goes," Marovelli said. "She juggles her NANA job, takes care of things in Kiana and at the same time she is an excellent mother and role model for her children."
"I went to an excellent high school in Illinois," Helvi said. "But it wasn't like Kiana where absolutely everybody knows your name. You could run into somebody on the river and they knew you so well they could tell you your whole family tree. That leads to such a sense of belonging."
"I grew up with the comfort of knowing exactly who I am."
For more information: University of Alaska Fairbanks Aurora Newsletter