FAIRBANKS - The director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North is retiring after 15 years on the job and an era of growth for the facility.
Aldona Jonaitis will step down Nov. 27, her 60th birthday, after helping to transform the museum from a cramped tourist attraction to an Alaska architectural landmark.
"I really feel this is the beginning of my new life, and it's all very exciting," she said.
Jonaitis oversaw dramatic growth in the museum's facilities, education programs, budget and staff.
Paul Reichardt, the retired University of Alaska provost who hired Jonaitis, said her accomplishments have transformed the museum into a place with a national reputation.
"She and I both believed there were some great opportunities and she was going to do some really great things," he said. "I don't think either of us envisioned (the museum) would become what it is today."
When Jonaitis was hired in 1993, she said, former UAF Chancellor Joan Wadlow assigned her the task of expanding the museum.
The expansion, completed last year at a cost of $48 million, added 43,791 square feet and a swooping design that has made the museum one of the most distinctive buildings in Alaska.
The project ran into obstacles as the university butted heads with the building contractor over delays, cost overruns and design changes. UA and the builder, Alaska Mechanical Inc., traded lawsuits before the university agreed to settle with a $4.65 million payment last year.
Jonaitis acknowledged she grew impatient during the process but said she's happy with the results.
"This is an absolutely wonderful place," she said.
With the expansion completed, Jonaitis said, it was the perfect time to step aside. Jonaitis said she was also affected by the death of her older sister last year.
"When that happens, you start thinking about what life is, what death is, what you want to do before you die. I think at this point I want to do things that I really enjoy deeply," she said.
Jonaitis hopes write a book about Native American horse art. She will work as a museum consultant and she's setting aside time for dog mushing with friend Ken Severin. A longtime culinary enthusiast, she's also planning to launch a small dessert catering company.
"I just would like to make things like wedding and party cakes and make people happy," she said. "Sweet things make people happy."
Her new life will also include remaining in Fairbanks, a decision that Jonaitis said has surprised some friends and colleagues. She was raised in New York City, and Reichardt said he was not sure if she'd last long in Alaska when he hired her.
Jonaitis said she can't imagine leaving.
"Fairbanks is my home," she said. "I've felt more at home in Fairbanks than I ever have in New York City."