Frontier legend: IM native Rahoi shares 100 years of experiences

Urban Rahoi of Fairbanks, Alaska, turned 100 earlier this week. Born and raised in Iron Mountain, he flew B-17s during World War II and later became a lodge owner and big game hunting guide. (Erin Corneliussen/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner photo)

FAIRBANKS — It’s a rare achievement to live to the age of 100, but long-time Fairbanks resident and living legend Urban Rahoi makes it look easy. Sharp as a tack and loquacious as ever, Rahoi emanates a vitality only slightly dimmed by the stroke he suffered two years ago.

Born Jan. 7, 1919 — the day after Teddy Roosevelt died — Rahoi now lives at the Pioneers’ Home but manages to still drive snowmachines in the Fairbanks Tired Iron vintage snowmachine race. Rahoi recently met with visitors and shared stories about a long life well lived.

“I remember every bit of it,” Rahoi said, nodding his head with satisfaction as he reflected on his many adventures during his century on this earth.

The son of a miner turned politician, Rahoi was born and raised in Iron Mountain, Michigan. His family weathered the Depression by dint of hard work.

“You know, it wasn’t that bad, in some respects. We had a garden and we had 100 rabbits. We used to walk six or seven miles out to these big swamps and hunt, and then walk home. I drove out there when I was home a couple of years ago and I thought, ‘Holy crap! That’s a long way,'” Rahoi said.

Urban Rahoi, holding helmet, and Larry Csonka pose for photos with Rahoi’s family members during Rahoi’s 100th birthday celebration in Fairbanks, Alaska. Csonka, a Hall of Fame fullback for the Miami Dolphins, told stories about sheep hunting with Rahoi before presenting him a signed team helmet. U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also attended, praising Rahoi as “part of the greatest generation, that saved America and built Alaska.” (Dorothy Chomicz/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner photo)

Rahoi fell in love with airplanes and made his first solo flight at the age of 15, after taking only two hours of flight instruction from a friend. He went to work for the highway department after high school and was 21 years old when he chanced to meet his wife, Vienna — known as Vi — when he gave her and her friends a ride to town during a snowstorm. The two were married in 1940 and Rahoi hoped to become an airline pilot, but World War II changed his plans. He joined the Army Air Corp in 1942 and worked as a flight instructor in Arkansas before being sent overseas. Rahoi flew B-17 bombers in North Africa and Italy before a general made him a check pilot, checking flight crews and hauling personnel to Egypt and other areas.

Rahoi returned to Michigan when the war ended and went back to working for the highway department. He decided to get an engineering degree, but his plan was derailed in 1947 after he flunked two classes and was kicked out. It turned out to be the one of the best things that ever happened to him.

“I never dreamt about moving to Alaska, ever, but before I went back to Iron Mountain I went to the airport at Houghton and this guy tells me there’s a guy in Iron Mountain buying an airplane to come to Alaska and fly bush,” Rahoi said. “So I took my wife and threw her in the backseat of a T-6 and flew down there and saw him. We made a deal and three days later I went over to Pennsylvania and bought a brand new PA-12 Cub, ordered floats and I flew out to Seattle and up the coast and got up here.”

Rahoi got to work immediately, flying people to Chandalar Lake and building a little house so he could send for his wife. The couple homesteaded land on the southeast edge of town, and Rahoi developed it by building Vi’s Trailer Court, the first of two he would own in his lifetime. Lakeview Trailer Court came later, after he started digging and selling the gravel on his land.

“I thought, I’m not going to dig a lake out there that’s just a hole in the ground between everybody. So I came up with the Lakeview double terrace development,” Rahoi said.

Rahoi carved out 172 lots, designed the development and installed all of the electrical lines, water lines and septic system himself. In his spare time he ran a successful big game guiding business and built Ptarmigan Lake Lodge, an inholding in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. He was a member of the first Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly from 1964-66, and was an outspoken booster of the Susitna Dam project. He and Robert Mitchell financed and built the railroad track between Fairbanks International Airport and Fort Wainwright in the 1950s.

Rahoi racked up a remarkable 20,000 hours of flight time during his long career as a pilot, and rescued many people without ever seeking credit for it. In 2013, at the age of 94, Rahoi fulfilled a lifelong goal when he flew a P-51 Mustang, which he didn’t get a chance to fly in the war. The same year he also flew a B-17 Bomber, the “Yankee Lady,” impressing the Delta Airlines pilot who flew with him.

“I was quite amazed that he was as proficient and sharp as he was,” Gene Wedekemper said. “In this plane, you need a lot of taxi experience, and we practiced for 30 minutes, but once airborne, he was at the controls.”

Rahoi was forced to slow down after suffering a stroke in September 2016, a fact that doesn’t sit well with him.

“Well you know, if I hadn’t had the stroke I’d still be flying. I was loading barrels of oil the day before I had the stroke, and flying them into the lodge and putting them into the big tank. And I was driving a scraper, hauling gravel, at 971/2,” Rahoi said.

One constant throughout most of his life was his marriage to Vienna, who died of a heart attack at the age of 92, shortly before their 70th wedding anniversary. The couple had three children — Rick, Eugene and Holly — and have seven grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Rahoi said he and Vi enjoyed a “fantastic and unbelievable” marriage and never once got in an argument.

“She didn’t want fancy clothes, she didn’t want all that bull—- that everyone else wants. Neither did I. We didn’t go out and drink at bars and all that. Neither one of us ever drank a drop of liquor,” Rahoi said.

The key to happiness, according to Rahoi, is a good attitude.

“Don’t ever hate anybody, because the only one you hurt is yourself. It will eat at your stomach.”

When asked the secret to his longevity, Rahoi got a twinkle in his eye.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think good sex is the answer,” Rahoi said. “That’s better than any pill you can give anybody.”

Dorothy Chomicz can be reached at 907-459-7582 or dchomicz@newsminer.com. Mary Beth Smetzer contributed to this article.

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