Elton Engstrom Jr., a former Juneau legislator and current business owner, has passed.
Engstrom, 78, was born in Juneau in the midst of the Great Depression, and he spent his life here — a large portion of which was spent as a fish-buyer following in his father’s footsteps, whom he’d worked for in his younger years.
“Elton was an Alaskan pioneer,” said Byron Mallott, a Democratic hopeful for the governorship in 2014. “He was a tireless worker, he cared for the community and he was passionate about the fishing industry.”
His expertise in the industry, coupled with his care for Southeast Alaska communities, was critical in building an industry in Yakutat when the community needed someone to operate a new cold storage facility, Mallott said.
What made Engstrom’s decision to make the operation happen was the fact that he had no other business interests outside of Juneau at the time, Mallott added.
“He was a really good man. I looked up to him over the years both for his work ethic and his leadership — and for his sense of community and his commitment to family.” he said. “I’m proud and honored over all these years to be able to call him friend, and I know he felt the same way.”
While fishing was what he was most passionate about, Engstrom also participated in what has become a family tradition of sorts — public service.
“He was a champion for Southeast Alaska,” Mallott said.
Engstrom was elected to state office as a Republican representative in 1965, and two years later he moved up to the state Senate, where he served until 1971. Notable events from his time in office included the Fairbanks flood of 1967 and the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968.
“He didn’t pull any punches — he wasn’t a BS’er. If he said something, you knew damn well that’s exactly what he wanted,” said state Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau. “We disagreed on everything, but Elton didn’t care — he just wanted to tell you how he thought. But you listened to him, and he listened as well.”
His parents, Thelma and Elton Sr., both served as public servants in the territorial legislature back in the 1950s, and his father also served in the state Senate from 1961 to 1963.
Engstrom’s daughter is state Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a former assembly member and the daughter-in-law of well-known Alaska artist Rie Muñoz.
“He was a family man, a community leader, a regional leader and a statewide leader,” Mallott said. “He was of a generation that produced leadership and a desire to serve that we’ll likely never see again.”
Engstrom opted out of the fish-buying business in 1985, and spent much of his later years running the Fosbee Apartments and helping with his wife Sally’s downtown art gallery, Ad Lib.
Engstrom was also a writer who contributed a regular column to the Juneau Empire called “On the Waterfront” from 2002 through 2008. He also worked with his son, Allan, to write and publish a book in 2004 about the first governor of the Russian-American Company. In 2010, the book, “Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire,” was translated into Russian and published in St. Petersburg.
Though he is perhaps best known for his political contributions, Engstrom himself was most proud of work in the fishing industry. In an “On the Waterfront” column published in the Empire in September 2004, Engstrom said the years he spent managing the cold storage plant in Yakutat in the 1970s were “the most fulfilling and rewarding days of my life.”
Recalled Egan: “He was one of a kind, the type of person you really hate to see go off this earth.”