Ivy Leaf - Spring 2009
Putting the L.A. in Alaska
By Sam Wagner '09
L.A. Wilson steps from his Land Rover into the cold air of February. He greets his fellow workers on the short walk from the parking lot to his corner office in the Smith building on campus. Friendly co-workers and a short walk from the car, two simple things Wilson enjoys about Penn State Altoona.
Sitting down at his desk, he turns his chair to find a glorious view of campus in a large window opposite the door. The other two walls of his office represent two vastly different worlds that symbolize a man with very unique interests. To his left, a library of books, journals, maps, and articles that he has obtained over the years, including his eleven years as assistant dean for research at the college. And to his right, you’ll find another wall that epitomizes a life of adventure.
The Salmon King
Amongst the mounted mule deer antlers and rainbow trout on the wall, one is drawn to Wilson’s prize trophy: a massive seventy-two pound, fifty-four inch Alaskan king salmon. This whale of a fish wasn’t just a lucky catch. It was a product of practice for a well-trained professional. This college administrator just happens to be a licensed Alaska fishing guide and certified Coast Guard boat captain, two titles that are a "must have" for a man with his own charter boat business.
Wilson has harbored a love for Alaska and fishing his entire life. His passion turned into business during his ten years at the University of Alaska. As captain of his private forty-foot boat, Sea Fever, he took clients on five to seven day custom cruises. Business was exciting, to say the least.
"I’ve never sunk but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had some close calls," states Wilson. "I was guiding a couple from Erie once when out of nowhere I heard a blood-curdling scream from the woman on board. It turns out a whale had broached next to the boat. It was so close that I could’ve stepped on its back."
Wilson and Sea Fever pursued everything from salmon to Alaskan crab and gave clients a beautiful journey through Alaskan waters. In the long run, however, the business was taking the pleasure out of one of Wilson’s favorite hobbies.
"I found out I was working too hard," states Wilson with a laugh. "It was like running a twenty-four hour bed and breakfast by myself, except at sea the clients never leave!"
Now the Alaskan trip is a friend-oriented event where "everyone helps out and everyone has fun."
Right below the seventy-two pound Alaskan monster on Wilson’s wall is an Inuit mask made of Arctic fox fur. Wilson’s passion for Alaska quickly turns into conversation about the striking resemblance between the mask’s snow-white goatee and his own, and then to a detailed plan of how to enjoy an Alaskan vacation, ferry-style.
"There are ferries that take the same route as the cruise ships and are much cheaper. I take my dome tent, bed roll, and thermos, and set up right by the railing at the back of the ferry," describes Wilson. "I bundle up, lay with my thermos of coffee, and read a book. It’s absolutely incomparable to glance up out of your tent and look out at the passing water, to see the world going by."
The Contract "Fishing" Hole
But how does an assistant dean of research escape campus life for six weeks every summer?
"When I came to Penn State Altoona, I had a stipulation put in my contract that I’ve been told no one has ever had before," Wilson says with a slight grin. "Six weeks for fishing each summer. When you want to experience life, time is worth more than money."
That doesn’t mean he takes his job for granted. He believes research is a huge part of the Penn State system, which receives almost $700 million externally. "Both faculty and students have a great opportunity for research here at Penn State Altoona," says Wilson. "Our internal grant program provides $1000 to $7000 to each grant recipient."
The Assistant "James" Dean of Research
Another glance to the wall, across from the Inuit mask, features a picture of a red motorcycle. That, along with Wilson’s embroidered Harley sweatshirt, points out yet another hobby for the research fisherman.
"I’m down to three bikes now," states Wilson nonchalantly.
A sleek Harley Davidson and a classic 1978 Triumph Bonneville are part of his collection, along with a motorcycle that awaits him in Alaska. While he’s still trying to arrange a long ride to Alaska with the local Harley dealer, he enjoys cruising Altoona when the weather permits. "We arrange a faculty ride over a lunch break every year," Wilson states. "We even made it down to the Roadkill Café one year. It’s a nice common denominator to have with other faculty members."
It is also part of his identity on campus. To faculty and students who don’t know him personally, he is often referred to as "the motorcycle guy"—a title that when mentioned made him laugh out loud.
Home to Altoona
His office memorabilia isn’t all based on sporting hobbies however. Other mounts include education credentials, a certificate from the Governor of Arizona (naming him chair of a study commission that consisted of eight legislators and big names from various corporations), plaques of accomplishment, and pictures of his wife, son, and friends. It is a series of items that sums up perfectly the accomplishments and memories of a man who is taking life for all it’s worth.
With such a love for Alaska, it is easy to ask, why Altoona?
"Even though I love the remoteness of Alaska, my wife doesn’t care for it," states Wilson.
"She wanted a road system. Altoona allows easy access to many major cities and a chance to explore the east."
It is not a decision he regrets.
"I’ve been to big and small schools. Penn State Altoona offers the scholarly structure of a major university and the friendly work environment of a small college," says Wilson with a smile. "It’s a very productive faculty and a great work setting."
At day’s end, Wilson says his goodbyes to faculty and fish mounts alike and heads back into the cold for the thirty second walk to his Rover. He heads home to plan his next trip north and continue a life of adventure and passion.