The late Roger Markle funds climate adaptation endowment

Roger Markle. Photo courtesy of Nancy Markle.
Roger Markle. Photo courtesy of Nancy Markle.

By Sam Bishop

Roger Markle didn’t plan a career that led him from a remote Alaska mine to top posts in the U.S. government and corporations.

“Career planning is for most people, including me, a very difficult task, fraught with lots of bad advice,” he told a grandnephew via email in 2019.

Markle said he just followed the one good piece of advice he received — do something you enjoy.

That eventually led him to directorship of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and then the presidencies of Quaker State Corp. and Nerco Oil and Gas Co.

The successful career allowed him to leave a remarkable $2.1 million to climate change adaptation research at UAF before he died in January 2020 at age 86.

Markle didn’t want any publicity for his gifts when he made them. While still alive, he specified, UAF could not identify him as the source of the gift.

“I DO NOT want any publicity of my gift during my lifetime,” he wrote in one email while discussing his donation. “Can you guarantee confidentiality?”

Today, the university can gratefully acknowledge Markle as the principal source of funding for the Roger A. Markle Climate Change Adaptation Endowment. The endowment supports graduate students and faculty working on climate change adaptation at the International Arctic Research Center and its Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning unit.

It all resulted from that one piece of good advice — do what you enjoy.

Red Devil roots

Back in the 1950s, as a young man in Montana, Markle found that he enjoyed mining.

Roger Markle graduation image from yearbook
This 1959 yearbook photo of Roger Markle in his graduation garb lists some of the activities he was engaged in while attending the University of Alaska in the late 1950s. Photo from Denali yearbook.

Markle grew up in a rural community, where his parents farmed. Through eighth grade, he attended a one-room schoolhouse. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he started working weekends at mines in Butte while attending what was then the Montana School of Mines.

“He was very smart, I know,” said Nancy Markle, his younger sister, who now lives in Sun City, Arizona.

After two years of education in Montana, he took a boat from Seattle to Valdez, found his way to Fairbanks and enrolled at the University of Alaska. But he stayed in the mining business.

In 1958, Markle began working at a unique and renowned Alaska enterprise — the mercury mine at Red Devil in the middle Kuskokwim River country. The mine, 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks, could only be reached by aircraft or boat. Freight and fuel came by river barge from Bethel.

The mining claims had been staked by Hans Halverson in 1933. Nick Mellick joined as a partner and the two staked more claims a few years later. In 1940, they produced 160 flasks of mercury, each weighing 76 pounds.

With World War II ramping up, the U.S. government then got involved. The Bureau of Mines, which Markle would lead decades later, did exploration work that “exposed a spectacular showing of cinnabar and stibnite,” according to a 1962 bureau report.

Cinnabar is the ore source of mercury, which is used in electronics and instruments, including, at the time, thermometers and barometers. Stibnite is the source of antimony, which forms useful metallic alloys.

After graduating from UA with a mining engineering degree in 1959, Markle became the Red Devil mine’s resident engineer, working for Alaska Mines and Minerals Inc.

It was the mine’s heyday. According to a U.S. Geological Survey report, the mine produced nearly 30,000 mercury flasks — 2.3 million pounds — from 1953 to 1963.

“Yet my total full engineering career was just over a year, as I quickly found that I enjoyed/was good at managing,” Markle wrote to his grandnephew in 2019. So he became the mine’s general superintendent.

A talent for management

By 1961, though, Markle was back at UA, this time not as a student but as an adult education instructor. Among other things, he taught a prospecting course in Fort Yukon, according to a September 1963 edition of the Nanook News.

Markle followed his newly discovered career interest and earned a master’s degree in mine management from Stanford University in 1965.

Standard Oil Co. then hired him as a project manager in Denver, launching his corporate career. After moving to Illinois, he earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1971.

According to his sister, Nancy Markle, it was around this time that he married his wife, Mary.

Leaving Standard Oil in 1974, he became president of Valley Camp Coal Co.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, nominated Markle as director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

He had a short tenure in government. Markle returned to the Valley Camp Coal Co. in 1979, which then was owned by Quaker State Corp.

He became Quaker State’s president in 1986.

Three years later, Markle took an early retirement from Quaker State. He didn’t stay retired long, though. In 1990, he was named executive vice president of Nerco Inc. and president of its subsidiary, Nerco Oil and Gas Co.

Nerco, a major mining company, had deep Alaska connections. In 1981, the company had purchased Resource Associates of Alaska, which owned millions of acres of mining claims. Alaskan Lawrence Heiner, also a UA alumnus, became Nerco president in 1989.

The company’s petroleum work ended shortly thereafter, though. Nerco sold its oil and gas division to Kennecott in 1993, and Kennecott immediately sold the operation to the Louisiana Land and Exploration Co.

Shortly before the sale, Markle, at age 60, retired permanently. According to his sister, he and Mary then lived in Vancouver, Washington; Atlantic Beach, North Carolina; and Sun City, Arizona.

Nancy Markle also lived in Alaska, although many years after her brother had left. She spent about three decades working for federal and state courts in Anchorage.

A few years before her brother’s death, she moved to the Sun City housing complex where he lived. But she said she knows little about his life prior to that. He was a very private person, she said.

“He never really talked about what he did and where he lived,” she said.

Tremendous morale boost

Mary Markle died in 2014 in Sun City. The couple had no children together, but Mary had two daughters, both of whom died before she did.

Roger Markle said he had created a trust fund to care for Mary if he were to pass away before her. When she died in 2014, he decided to give the funds to the university. From that year through 2020, he gave more than $2.1 million to what became the Roger A. Markle Climate Change Adaptation Endowment.

“My areas of interest are the people living in the Arctic — how do they adapt to climate change? Can they do so?” Markle wrote in a note explaining his intentions.

IARC has already started to put Markle’s funding to work. Addie Norgaard, a doctoral student, is using endowment funds to study ocean chemistry and ecosystem changes that could affect fishing in the Gulf of Alaska. The research could help planning by communities and the fishing industry.

Hajo Eicken, IARC’s director, said Markle’s gift has been a “tremendous morale boost in these difficult times.”

“We recently embarked on a new strategic planning effort to identify how our work to understand the Arctic can make the greatest difference,” Eicken said. “As this plan unfolds, Roger’s support will help us carry out key initiatives, such as increased Indigenous-led research or a science shop that responds to civil society’s needs for climate change research and support for adaptation planning.”