Morrissey retires after career spanning half of rail's history

Photos/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

Karen Morrissey has had too many careers to count during her 48 years in Alaska, all with the Alaska Railroad.

She moved to Alaska, as so many young people have over the state’s history, because of the military. Her husband received orders to Elmendorf Air Force Base and the newlywed couple moved north from Illinois in the fall of 1967.

“We were only going to be here for two or three years,” Morrissey said nearly five decades later.

She retired from the Alaska Railroad Corp. director of real estate position April 1 after 19 years in the real estate division.

Soon after the couple settled in Anchorage, she took a federal service test to be eligible for government employment. However, First National Bank Alaska came calling first.

With a little experience in Allstate Insurance’s legal department back in Illinois and an associate’s degree in her back pocket, Morrissey hired on with the financial institution.

She was there less than a week before a railroad employee knocked on her apartment door and asked if she wanted a new job.

“I was working at the bank but the railroad really wanted me,” she recalled.

Money talked; the bank couldn’t compete with the $3.97 per hour the federally owned railroad was offering.

Morrissey was hired virtually on the spot to be a parts clerk in the heavy equipment shop in the “back alleys of Anchorage.”

She remembered being nervous as she drove there the first time past signs informing drivers on no uncertain terms to steer clear of nearby Elmendorf.

The shop had an oily concrete floor, gray walls and gray desks; but Morrissey was happy about the IBM Selectric typewriter issued to her after getting over some initial hesitation.

“I told my husband I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to work there because there were 30 dirty old men there, literally and figuratively,” she said.

Morrissey was in the shop for three years ordering parts to the tune of 3,000 orders each year and tracking oil changes for the off-track equipment on a large chart on the wall near her desk.

Ultimately, “those guys treated me like gold,” she said.

She took a secretary position in the executive office above the depot when the couple decided they would stay in Alaska long term.

She said the state has an unknowable attraction — that same feeling countless temporary-turned-lifelong Alaskans attempt to describe.

“To me it was an adventure.” Morrissey said. “So many of the military wives either loved it or hated it and if they hated it they made it miserable for their poor husbands.”

The job in the main office also began her tenure as the railroad’s Jane of All Trades.

“My job descriptions never really described what I did,” she said.

Through the mid- and late-1970s Morrissey wrote and edited the Alaska Railroad’s monthly report. One issue won Best Railroad Newsletter from a national trade association.

“What I think happened is I was the only one who submitted anything,” Morrissey quipped.

For a time she managed the railroad’s vehicle fleet, hand-me-downs leased from the General Services Administration.

At the same time she was the in-house technology expert, tasked with training staff on the early computer systems of the time. Despite 10 years of late nights fixing glitches Morrissey said she reveled in the challenge.

“I enjoyed the reward I got seeing someone learn something,” she said.

When the mainframe computer was moved to another building some time after the State of Alaska took ownership the railroad in 1985, “it was like they took my baby away,” Morrissey said.

She said her fascination with the growth of Alaska and how closely it’s tied to the railroad kept her with one employer.

Spend just a few minutes with Morrissey and it’s clear she is a preeminent Alaska historian.

When she first started in the equipment shop the railroad was still recovering from the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. Morrissey remembers the mechanics talk of sleeping in equipment outside the shop overnight in the months after the quake to keep repairs moving as quickly as possible.

A few years later the birth of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System ballooned the railroad’s workforce to more than 1,300. It employs 585 full-time employees today and is still critically tied to North Slope oil and gas operations.

The City of Anchorage’s phone switchboard was in the First Avenue railroad depot communications room into the early ‘70s. Morrissey said the antiquated system, with manuals from the 1920s, would not allow calls to be transferred.

When in doubt, Anchorage put it in the railroad building.

“The original City of Anchorage morgue is in the basement of the depot. They used to keep all of our records there and I used to have to go down there and it was chilled,” she said.

Before the state bought the railroad for $22 million, money was hard to come by.

“We didn’t even have our own bank account,” Morrissey recalled. “The railroad’s money went into the U.S. Treasury, so the money that came out had to be in our budget. Trying to justify to the Senate Transportation Committee what the Alaska Railroad needed up here — it was foreign to them.”

State ownership transformed the railroad from a government agency to a business, she said.

While it is owned by the state, the Alaska Railroad is a self-sustaining enterprise corporation.

In 1988, with the odd hours of the IT business behind her, Morrissey enrolled at Alaska Pacific University and took classes year-round. In 1993, the same year her son graduated high school, she completed her MBA.

“I was hitting the books pretty hard and I though I would be a good influence on my kids but they kept tell me, ‘Mom, you work too hard.’ I think they understand now,” Morrissey said.

A few years later she began her first of multiple positions in the real estate division, the “permanent fund” of the railroad, as Morrissey describes it.

About half of the railroad’s 36,000 acres statewide are available for lease — a high-income, low-expense business.

Being a lead player of such an important piece to the railroad’s health was particularly enjoyable, she said.

She couldn’t leave all at once, though. Morrissey is working part-time as a contracted employee to help install a new real estate database. However, she and her husband have a month in Europe planned for the fall, a chance to really take a deep breath.

Morrissey will continue serving as a volunteer director on Denali Alaskan Federal Credit Union’s board, a post she has held since the credit union formed nearly 30 years ago.

Denali Alaskan CEO Bob Teachworth has worked alongside Morrissey that entire time. He said he has the utmost respect for her and particularly commended her knowledge of Alaska business and her drive to continue to serve on the board.

“(The directors) put up with all the trials and tribulations of a modern credit union and they don’t get paid for it,” Teachworth said. “She’s been a loyal, hardworking board member for a long time.”

Morrissey began her service on the Alaska Railroad Credit Union in 1983. Denali Alaskan was born when it merged with the Teamsters Credit Union in 1986 to form roughly a $30 million operation. Teachworth noted that Morrissey has overseen 20-fold growth to $600 million.

It’s all meant a busy schedule for Morrissey, so she had April 2 planned long ago.

“I’m going to the gym in the morning, and going to go out with my husband during the day and have a massage that night and then go out to dinner,” she said in March.

It’s been confirmed she followed through.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 8:05am