FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Growing up in Grass Valley, California, Vern Woods always knew he wanted to go to Alaska someday.

"I'd always gathered up any books and pictures I could find on Alaska, and it had always been in the back of my mind that I'd like go there, but it really wasn't a reality at the time," Woods said Friday at his tidy, well-maintained Aurora Subdivision home.

The son of a trucker and a secretary, Woods was born in 1937, coming of age at the end of the Korean War. He volunteered to go, but "they weren't taking anyone by that time." So, Woods got work as a lineman and foreman for a telephone company in Susanville, California.

A CHANGE PRECIPITATED BY TRAGEDY

While working in Southern California, Woods met a teacher named Marion. The couple married and soon had two sons. Their oldest boy died at 18 months.

"It hit us pretty hard, and my wife went back to Michigan to visit her folks. One of the fellows that worked with me had gone to Alaska, and we kept in touch. I called my friend and he said there was an opening up here at the phone company. So I called my wife and I told her, 'if you want to see me within the year, then you'd better come home because we're moving to Alaska,'" Woods said.

In 1970, Woods bought a 29-foot trailer home and towed it up the Alaska Highway while Marion stayed in California to finish out her one-year teaching contract. The trip took him eight days.

"I drove all night to get to Alaska on my birthday on the 29th of August. My friend was out hunting, so he made arrangements for his wife to meet me at the city limits and show me into town and get the trailer parked. I stayed with them for a week while I got the trailer set up in a trailer park," Woods said.

Unfortunately for Woods, he arrived just in time for one of the worst winters on record, with heavy snows and weeks of 45- to 50-below weather. The trailer's pipes froze the first time he used the water, and he had to tear the walls out to fix the plumbing.

"All the guys from the Municipal Utilities System, where I went to work, came over and helped me get that trailer back in shape. They boxed it in and helped me get it insulated. Everybody pitched in," Woods fondly recalled.

SUCCESS IN A BOOMTOWN ECONOMY

Marion and the baby joined Woods once her contract was up, and the little family rented an apartment for two years before buying the home the couple still lives in. They had two daughters, and Marion taught grade school while Woods continued to work as a lineman. The pipeline came and many of Woods' co-workers quit to work on the North Slope, but Woods stayed where he was. The town was packed with newcomers, and MUS workers were hard pressed to keep up with the demand for new phone lines.

"Every year, for me, was better than the last," Woods said, noting the vast amounts of overtime he worked during that period. "I didn't need to go north because I was making as much as the pipeline workers. Of course, working for the city, my wages were public knowledge, and they published them every year. The first year, I was on the front page of the newspaper. It said 'Who do you think made the most money in Fairbanks? Not the mayor, but the line foreman.' I took a lot of flack for that," Woods said, laughing.

Woods got in the habit of giving Marion his regular paychecks, while he put his overtime pay in a savings account. A pilot since the age of 16, Woods was able to buy his first airplane, a Piper Clipper. Since then, he has bought two more planes, but had to give up flying after experiencing some heart issues a few years ago.

Woods also built a cabin, out of town, where he would go to hunt and get away from it all.

"Whenever Marion would give me a little uphill, I'd just go to the cabin for a day or two. She says that's what kept our marriage together, that cabin," Woods said.

Married 54 years and long retired, Woods and Marion have traveled around the world and own a 50 acre ranch in Wisconsin. Their daughter Sarah teaches special education in Des Moines, and their daughter Beth, a former Taikwando world champion, is a heart specialist in Green Bay. Woods visits the ranch for about a month every summer to spend time with his four grandkids and teach them how to hunt.

A LIFETIME OF KINDNESS AND GIVING

In addition to having a happy, successful life, Woods has been a guardian angel of sorts to several people throughout his 80 years on Earth. Years ago, he was returning from a fishing trip to Valdez when he encountered a blizzard while driving past Summit Lake. He could barely see the road and was following a lone set of tire tracks when he noticed the tracks disappeared. Woods kept going, but then decided to back up and see what might have happened to the car that made the tracks. He heard someone screaming for help and made his way down an embankment to find a small Datsun pickup stuck in the brush hanging over the water. The door was jammed, but he was able to climb up the underside of the truck and pull the passenger, Betsy Sharp, out the window. The driver was older and needed more help, so Woods ran back up to the road and flagged down a passing vehicle with three strong teenage boys in it. Woods and the boys rescued the driver, and Woods drove him and Sharp back to Fairbanks.

Woods also helped a driver who went off the road near Tok and was choking on his tongue, which he'd almost bitten in two. The man bit Woods' hand as he tried to render aid; Woods finally had to resort to putting a stick in the man's mouth until help arrived. Another time, Woods woke up to find the power off. Realizing his neighbor, who used an oxygen tank, would be in trouble, Woods rushed over and was able to get her oxygen flowing again.

Woods' most recent act of heroism occurred less than two months ago, when he shot and killed a pit bull that attacked a rat terrier being walked by two neighbor girls. The pit bull's owner was bitten on the shoulder and the girls were dragged during the attack but are doing OK, according to Woods. The rat terrier required multiple stitches but miraculously survived.

When their children were young and still at home, Woods and Marion instituted a holiday tradition that he says his daughters still remember fondly.

"I got in the habit of calling the old folks home and asking if they had anyone there who didn't have any family or friends in Fairbanks. I'd ask if they wanted to come over to have Christmas dinner with us," Woods said. "We had one older lady named Anna over for about four years before she passed, and then we had another old gent for a couple of years. I'd also go over during the year to say hi or take a candy bar to them. My kids never forgot that."

___

Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com