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Overstreet leaves a legacy as Juneau champion

Posted: April 10, 2013 - 12:05am

Ask anyone in town, Bill Overstreet was beloved and admired by all, even those he argued with. The Empire once named him one of 25 people who had the most impact on Juneau.

“If he saw something that he thought was worthy of Juneau, he would really work to make whatever the situation was come about,” Jean Overstreet said in a phone interview from Arizona, where they spend winters, “He always wanted things to be better for Juneau.”

Overstreet wrote in his autobiography, An Okie’s Life in the Alaskan Rainforest, that he “somehow survived the dust bowl, The Great Depression, World War II, a career without job security, six capital move elections, a carotid artery endarterectomy, cancer surgery and God knows how many miles of ship, train plane and automobile travel.”

The former Juneau mayor, who was born May 1, 1926 and died Monday, April 8, had been fighting prostate cancer that had metastasized to the bone, but it was a Feb. 19 stroke that spurred Jean to call 911, and he didn’t recover as doctors hoped.

“He’s been in the hospital or in a physical therapy facility since then,” Jean said, “Until last Wednesday, when they decided he wasn’t recovering the way he should.”

He was then in a longterm care facility until, they thought, he would be ready to go home.

“Then I realized he wouldn’t make it, but I didn’t think it would come quite as quick as it did,” she said. “He wasn’t getting any better, his quality of life wasn’t good — it’s hard to want someone to stay with you if they’re miserable.”

Overstreet’s leadership, passion and sense of humor made an indelible mark on Juneau and those who could call him a friend — which was many people.

Roger Grummett first met him as an eighth grade student, Overstreet was the basketball coach, but went on to spend many afternoons with him and others at weekly lunches and golf excursions.

“When Bill was unable to go golfing, we would continue the lunches. Lunch was mandatory but golfing was optional,” Grummett said.

Though nobody commented on his golf game, Grummett and others were impressed with his quick wit and humor.

“He was one of those individuals that could walk into a room and when he was feeling particularly perky, he had a little strut to him, like he knew something you didn’t know,” recalled longtime friend and former Juneau Empire publisher Jeff Wilson, “You just knew he was getting ready to say something profound, whether humorous or some political note.”

Grummett said Overstreet “was just a wealth of knowledge” and said he was “never short of words in terms of answering a question or defending Juneau.”

Wilson said it was just such a debate that kindled their friendship when Jeff was still fairly new to Juneau and his position as publisher. Overstreet found fault with one of Wilson’s choices in publishing and called him up to give him a piece of his mind.

After arguing for a spell, Overstreet called back about five minutes later, Wilson said, “and said, “Why don’t you have dinner with me, we’ll talk about this over dinner.”

They met at the Prospector Hotel, which Wilson described as being quite the hub, and argued some more over dinner.

“Here we were, mayor and publisher of the local paper, eyeball to eyeball, and clearly not happy with each other — we did have some Jack Daniels that was involved — and sat there for, I’d guess, about two hours...”

When both were exhausted by the argument, Overstreet said “I guess nobody’s going to win this thing,” Wilson said, and that they’d have to agree to disagree.

They were friends from then on and had coffee together most mornings at the Baranof Hotel.

WIlson said he mentioned that fight about eight years ago, he said, ““I think I wont that thing,” and (Overstreet) said, “No, you didn’t.””

“I admired the man,” Wilson said, “He was as honest as could be.”

Much of Overstreet’s quick wit was channeled into keeping the Capitol in Juneau.

“His shining moment was the ‘82 election when they defeated the Capitol move and it looked like we’d be secure.” Jean said.

He was also proud of his service in the Navy on the USS Portland and Jean said she is proud of his his appointment in Tokyo and his work in the field of education as well.

“Did you know he brought the community schools to Juneau?” she asked, “He took a year sabbatical to learn about community school snad to bring that back to Juneau.”

“His biggest disappointment would be that he couldn’t live to see the whale project complete,” Jean said, saying he felt the bronze whale statue would be good for Juneau “like the space needle in Seattle.”

Asked what motivated him, Jean said, “I think he worked harder on something that would be beneficial for the city, for the state.”

Throughout his career, from stream guard to teacher to administrator to mayor to working for Wally Hickel — Overstreet retired at least three separate times — he has certainly made a mark on the capital city.

“Nobody will ever know all the things he did for Juneau,” Wilson said.

Jean is planning a memorial service for sometime in July.

Those who were touched by Overstreet or who admired his service are encouraged to share memories online in the comments section. Many who were close to Overstreet were not available by press time to share their experiences. For more on Overstreet’s life, please see The abridged Overstreet, parts I and II, printed Sept. 30, 2012 and Oct. 7, 2012.

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