In 1958, a bell rang out 49 times in Juneau, announcing the signing of the Alaska Statehood Act in Washington D.C. The bell-ringer’s claim to fame was inadvertent, but nevertheless Romer Derr’s name became etched in local history books and forever associated with the historic moment.
A passerby, a tourist from Washington state, had captured the moment on film and contacted the Empire when news of Derr’s death on Jan. 26 reached the Lower 48. The rare photograph is one of the only images made of the bell-ringing ceremony. Wallie Funk, of Anacortes, Wash., now 89 old, shared his photographs with the Empire this past week to help document that day in 1958.
“I still to this day still feel like a unique part of all this, and here we are 50 years later,” Funk said in a phone interview.
Then 36, Funk owned the Anacortes American newspaper and found himself on a boat heading towards Alaska. He explored the villages of the Panhandle, and travelled to Ketchikan and Warm Springs Bay. After the two-week trip was complete, he flew on a puddle jumper from Elfin Cove to Juneau, where he was to spend the night and go back home to Washington the next day.
He booked a room at the Baranof Hotel, then walked around the capital city to check out the sights before he left the following morning. As chance would have it, he ran into an old friend who was an administrative aide to Gov. Michael Stepovich.
“I was out walking around and he called out my name and this was the fella I knew from a previous newspaper experience, and he said, ‘What are you doing in downtown Juneau?’” Funk recalled.
The aide persuaded Funk to stay, saying, “Since you’re here already, you might be interested in developing events.”
So Funk extended his trip a few extra days and stayed in Juneau. No one knew for certain when the bill would be signed at the White House, but the aide had a hunch that it was going to be in the next two or three days. He was right — it was signed the next day on July 7, 1958.
The aide, who had taken Funk under his wing, was instructed to stay in the governor’s office and wait for Stepovich to call, confirming that the bill was signed. Funk was in the office as the aide talked to the governor on the phone. Afterwards, the aide took Funk’s picture behind the governor’s desk to mark the historic occasion.
“He told me, ‘In view of the fact because all this is happening and it’s history,’” Funk remembers.
As news arrived Eisenhower had signed the Alaska Statehood Act, Derr rushed to get a ceremony in order. As president of the Juneau Junior Chamber of Commerce, Derr previously had been asked to plan a ceremony to commemorate the bill-signing. Derr arranged for one woman to hold an Alaska flag, another to hold the U.S. flag, and another to ring the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of the Federal and Territorial Building, now the present-day Capitol Building.
It so happened the designated bell-ringer could not take off work, and last-ditch efforts to find an understudy were unsuccessful.
“They finally said ‘you got to do it,’ so I did it,” the late Derr told the Empire in an interview before he died.
Meanwhile, Stepovich’s aide directed Funk to be there for the bell-ringing ceremony. Funk said he remembers a small crowd gathering in front of the Territorial Building, and he saw “this young man surrounded by adoring girls, one with an Alaska flag, a couple kids with bicycles around.”
Wearing a white collared shirt and dark slacks, Derr gave the bell 49 chimes and speakers placed on top of the roof reverberated the sound of statehood throughout downtown Juneau. Funk snapped a picture. At the ceremony, Funk met an Associated Press reporter who had either forgotten his camera or forgot to put the film in.
“I would have been just another tourist if the writer (had) his camera with him,” Funk said. “I said to myself, ‘I hope you remembered to put the film in and take the lens cap off.’”
Funk gave the reporter permission to use photograph for the wire. The two went back to the AP office downtown and Funk helped him answer phones in his office, which the reporter was manning by himself.
“After the announcement came, literally the phones were ringing off the hook,” he said. “I answered a couple phones because this guy, he was just swamped.”
Funk wandered around downtown afterwards, soaking in the scene and taking more pictures. He took about 300 frames using a Circo Flex camera that accommodated a roll of film with 12 exposures.
A photograph shows a dog staggering out of the Red Dog Saloon, where Funk met the classic ragtime player Hattie Jessup and clinked glasses with Juneauites inebriated with the prospect of statehood.
“There was near unanimous joy,” Funk said, adding that some commiserated by saying “Now we’re going to be a state, there goes the neighborhood.”
Downtown, even business came to a screeching halt as people cheered the bill signing. One dress shop, called Alberton’s, in particular.
“The counter became a bar and champagne corks popped like a fireworks display on the fourth of July,” Funk said.
Now the photographs are part of the Anacortes Museum in Washington as part of the Wallie Funk Collection. A museum educator, Bret Lunsford, converted the prints into a digital format to send to the Empire.
Looking back nearly 54 years after the event, Funk says that trip to Alaska was a trip of a lifetime.
“That trip to Alaska, it’s still the event that keeps producing rewards, and this is one of them,” he said. “Fifty-four years later, I just enjoyed the excitement of the moment.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.