Spring 2008 • Volume 14, Issue 2
The road from Bradley to Alaska
Leo von Scheben ’64
Leo von Scheben ’64 was driving on an Alaskan highway in January 2007 when he received a call on his cell phone. Months earlier, he had sent his résumé to the state of Alaska.
Calling was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She told von Scheben his résumé was very impressive and asked what kind of job interested him. As von Scheben described his experience — he’s an engineer and surveyor with a civil engineering degree from Bradley, an industrial engineering degree from the University of Florida, and an MBA from the University of Alaska — Palin interrupted and asked if he’d like a Cabinet position.
“It went right over the top of my head at that time,” said von Scheben, who instantly agreed to the position. “I didn’t hear her say Commissioner of DOT (Department of Transportation). But the governor knew of me and my business, and I think that was a major selling point to her.”
Forty-four years earlier, von Scheben was introduced to Alaska by Bradley roommate Harold “Louis” Leskinen ’64. In the spring of ’63, Leskinen asked von Scheben if he would like to go to Alaska with him. Leskinen, who spent the previous summer working in Alaska, was going back again.
A native of the Chicago suburb Burbank, he asked permission from his parents, then hopped in the Leskinens’ ’57 Chevy for the seven-day, 4,000-mile (1,500 miles on gravel) trip. “His parents drove, and we sat in the back seat,” said von Scheben, who now lives with his wife, Deborah, in Big Lake, Alaska. “It was a very long trip. The dust that came up through the car and the floorboard was terrible. You’d just hope you didn’t get behind a truck.”
Von Scheben worked with the Department of Transportation and Highways as a surveyor and a bridge inspector in Fairbanks that summer. Upon returning to Illinois, he earned a bachelor’s degree and considered working for the Illinois Highway Department. “The more I thought about it, I wanted to go back to Alaska. It got into my blood.” He flew to Alaska and started working with the Department of Aviation. He never came back.
In 1973 he was among the founders of USKH, a design firm that offers architectural, engineering, planning, and land surveying services. He left as CEO in 2006 because he felt it was time to give the younger employees more responsibility.
His new duties as commissioner have provided a challenge. “The first two months was like drinking from a fire hose,” said von Scheben, who is also the Alaska alumni chapter contact. “It was hard. Legislature was in session. I’m coming from the private sector for over 40 years into state government. All of a sudden, people who have projects start pouring into my office. People, I guess, just assumed I’d been here for years. I put together a spiral notebook. It was an inch thick, and by the time I finished, every page was filled with some kind of notes in the first two months. I’m on notebook two, now.”
That was last spring. Now he’s on notebook No. 3 of learning the highways of Alaska. But while pondering his new responsibilities from his office in Juneau, he looked out a window to the mountainous scenery and said, “It’s a good life I have here.”
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