Richard Wolfe donned many hats while raising a family in Alaska: bush pilot, chief of police and LDS branch president to a congregation that never met.
Richard took his new bride, Isabelle, on an adventure when they moved to the Alaska Territory in 1956. He used his GI Bill to enroll at the University of Alaska near Fairbanks to pursue a wildlife management degree. The only problem — absolutely no place to live.
"Not even a motel," they reminisced from their retirement cabin in Hamilton, Mont.
After a fortunate conversation with an electrician working at the university, they rented his 16-by-16-foot cabin by the river that included a closet, a wood stove, an oil heater, a package of sunflower seeds and a front door that almost closed.
Over the next year they traded rent for labor and expanded the home to a "luxury cabin," complete with indoor plumbing, a cellar, a well and a small garden. Isabelle put her industrious nature to work as she accepted a bookkeeping job, fended off moose and became reacquainted with the religion she knew as a child.
Some winter mornings, two inches of frost accumulated on the nail heads of the cabin and their bedspread froze to the wall. They eventually bought a nearby cabin and built a 16-by-20-foot addition with a fireplace and propane stove.
"I painted the cabinets to make it a nice little home for us," Isabelle said.
After becoming active in the local Relief Society, Isabelle casually asked her husband if he would like to meet with the Mormon missionaries.
He said yes and was baptized in 1960.
"They could hardly wait for a year to pass so they could put him in the branch presidency," Isabelle said. And so began his leadership training that propelled him into a new career, as well. He joined the police force about the same time he joined the church.
"Fairbanks was pretty wild in those days," Richard said. "All kinds of odd people and riffraff came up from the 'lower 48.' We'd deal with prostitution, robberies and many liquor-related crimes. … I broke up my fair share of knife fights. In 1974 when the Alaskan pipeline came through, Fairbanks doubled in size in one year and then it really got crazy."
Richard worked his way through the ranks as a patrolman, detective, sergeant, then lieutenant before being made chief of police in November 1975.
That same month, he was called to be branch president over the Northern Alaska Branch, otherwise known as the "Bush Branch."
He became responsible for the spiritual welfare of all those north of the 66th parallel, including Fort Yukon and Nome as well as five miles on either side of the 800-mile pipeline starting at Prudhoe Bay and ending at Valdez, Alaska.
Richard says he had no idea what the membership of the branch was at the time.
"I never had the foggiest notion," he said.
About the best he could do was fly his bush plane into transient "pipeline camps," find members of the church and assign priesthood group leaders.
"There were a lot of group leaders I've never seen to this day," he said. "We'd talk on the phone and I'd get a call when he was going to be shipped out. So I'd ask, 'Who do you recommend to be your replacement? Well, put him on the phone.' And that's how callings were extended."
With the mantle of President Wolfe, Richard supplied the camps with sacrament trays and cups.
"When a camp shut down, the group leaders would bring the sacrament supplies to the airport and I'd pick them up," he said. "We did have a Relief Society president at one camp for a while. There were three or four ladies who would gather together for a lesson."
His counselors were Donald Blanc and Robert Jenks, who were also pilots with their own planes.
"We didn't find a need for a secretary since we didn't have records," he said.
On Sundays when they weren't traveling, Richard and Isabelle attended the Fairbanks Branch, where he was ribbed for being "the only branch president they knew who didn't have a congregation."
Richard has fond memories of home teaching by plane and delivering clothes and supplies to needy families living in the bush.
"It was a great time in our life," Richard and Isabelle said. They adopted two children — a week-old boy who was half-Athabaskan and half-Eskimo and an infant girl who was of White Russian and Tyonic descent from a small tribe living in a village across the bay from Anchorage.
The walls of their current, very warm cabin are covered with beautiful family pictures and framed certificates of accomplishment from serving in the church and police force in Alaska. Richard retired after 20 years with the Fairbanks Police Department and 10 years as head of a security team for Arco-Alaska at Prudhoe Bay.
They are active in the Blodgett Canyon Ward of the Stevensville Montana Stake and serve as consultants in the Family History Library and as ordinance workers at the Spokane Temple.
But Richard and Isabelle's fondest accomplishment so far is their undying faith in the gospel that gave hope and purpose on the Alaskan tundra.