From government to children’s books, a conversation with Fran Ulmer

Illustrator Anastasia Ward explains the art and design process for “Walking With Katy.” (Photo by Tim Brown)
Illustrator Anastasia Ward explains the art and design process for “Walking With Katy.” (Photo by Tim Brown)

She may have retired from being UAA’s chancellor, but Frances “Fran” Ulmer has been keeping busy.

Ulmer visited UAA on March 1 to share something very special to her, a children’s book she wrote for her three-year-old grandson, Lucas.

Walking with Katy” is a six-story collection of bedtime stories that Ulmer tells her grandson whenever she is visiting her daughter’s family in New Orleans or whenever they visit her in Alaska. She made the decision to write them down after her grandson corrected her one night.

“He said, ‘Grandma, that’s wrong.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘You’re telling it wrong,’ and then corrected my story,” Ulmer said. “So, I decided that maybe I needed to write them down, because obviously his memory was better than my memory.”

Ulmer chose a current UAA art student, Anastasia Ward, to illustrate the book. Ward and Ulmer used to self-publish the book. By December 2012, there was a printed copy waiting for Fran’s grandson under the Christmas tree.

“As soon as I saw him, which was about a month later, he was pretty excited about it. He wanted to show me Katy. I don’t think he put it together in his head that I’d actually done this — but more like, maybe I’d read about Katy and walking the dog and the book, but just didn’t have a copy of it,” she said. “So he was showing me Katy.”

Ulmer isn’t sure whether or not she’ll publish again, but she said the experience was fun.

- Advertisement -

She said Being the author of a children’s book is one of many “hats” she’s worn. Being UAA’s chancellor from 2007 to 2011 is only one of those other hats.

Ulmer has served as chair on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and has done so ever since she was appointed by President Barack Obama in March 2011. President Obama also appointed her to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in June 2010. Before being chancellor, she served as a visiting professor to UAA, as well as the Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA.

Ulmer also served as an elected official for 18 years. She was the mayor of Juneau, a state representative and the first woman Lieutenant Governor of Alaska. She was legal counsel to the Alaska Legislature, the legislative assistant to Governor Jay Hammond and Director of Policy Development for the state.

“I sort of had an entirely different career before coming to the university,” Ulmer said. “Harvard has a program for people who had careers but who wanted to spend a short period of time in a fellowship capacity. So I went off for a semester at Harvard, and I was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School, which gave me a chance to try out teaching. Most people don’t ‘try teaching’ at Harvard, but that’s where I started.”

But it wasn’t always easy being a woman in her many different positions.

“I think it made a difference in that, in some cases, it was hard for people to accept me, because they were used to seeing a different kind of person in that role,” she said. “But I’ve tried very hard not to let it get in my way and not to let it influence my behavior in a bad way, but only in a positive way.”

She said she knew others often considered roles “non-traditional.”

“A lot of those positions were challenging in the sense that I knew that I had to really, really, really, work hard to do a great job, so that it would be easier for other women to follow me, and I think that’s always been a part of what’s on my mind,” Ulmer said.

Ulmer largely credits her post-secondary education for her success in these various jobs and holds education in high esteem.

“In my life, all of my careers have only been possible because of the education I’ve received at the University of Wisconsin. I got an undergraduate degree in economics and political science, and a law degree,” she said. “And for me, it opened up doors and opportunities that never, ever would have been possible. I couldn’t have even dreamed of them. So I have such a high regard for higher education and what it does to people’s lives in ways that they can’t even imagine when they’re in school.”

Between government positions, learning to teach at Harvard, becoming chancellor of UAA and writing a children’s book for her grandson, Ulmer has never been an idle person.

It’s a fair bet that she won’t start any time soon.