Former House Speaker Ben Grussendorf is remembered by those he worked with as an unparalleled legislator, one with a good nature who kept strong relationships even with political rivals.
“He was a political genius, I love the guy, he passed way to early,” said former Rep Bill Hudson, R-Juneau.
Grussendorf died Friday at Sitka Community Hospital. Gov. Sean Parnell, a former legislator himself who served with Grussendorf, ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff in remembrance of the Sitkan today.
He was the only legislator to serve three terms as Speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Former Sitka Mayor John Dapcevich, now living in Juneau, watched Grussendorf’s political career from up close and as Sitka’s mayor during much of Grussendorf’s time in office.
“He was a great guy, he was a tremendous legislator, he just belonged there,” Dapcevich said.
“He was never mean spirited, but he was tough as nails,” Hudson said.
Grussendorf served two terms as Sitka’s mayor, in between Dapcevich’s multiple terms. In Sitka, he also served on the city’s charter commission, which merged the city and the borough in the early 1970s.
At Sitka High School, Grussendorf taught American history and Alaska Government classes, laying the groundwork for what later became his impressive legislative skills.
“If he ever got into a pickle, he knew all of the parliamentary processes to stop the action, to buy time,” Hudson said.
“A lot of us had Ben Grussendorf for Alaska Government class,” said former Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, who served with him.
Juneau’s Harvey Marvin was living in Sitka when he served with Grussendorf on the charter commission, and both were elected to the assembly the same year.
He moved to Juneau and worked for years with the Division of Legislative Budget and Audit, but returned to Juneau when Grussendorf sought higher office.
“When he ran for the Legislature I went back to Sitka and campaigned for him among the Native people,” Marvin said.
“I enjoyed working with him, I thought he was really effective,” Marvin said.
While Grussendorf represented Sitka, the Southeast legislative delegation all worked together for the entire region, he said, and sought out Marvin to hear about his hometown of Hoonah’s needs.
Hudson, a Republican, joined a coalition led by Grussendorf making sure that the city and region were taken care of.
“He was always looking after Juneau, Sitka, and the Southeast,” Marvin said.
Hudson said he and Grussendorf worked together to keep fish farming out of Alaskan waters, over the objections of some who hoped to profit from the new industry.
“We thought it would be a killer to the wild salmon industry we have here in Alaska,” Hudson said,
Former Legislator Jay Kerttula, D-Palmer, remembered working with Grussendorf, who he considered one of the Legislature’s most effective members, on ferry funding, important to his district’s cities of Cordova and Valdez as well as Southeast.
“He was definitely a different type of guy, he cut his own swath,” Kerttula said.
“He could tell you “no,” and you’d still like him,” Hudson said.
Grussendorf had an excellent sense of humor, Hudson and Kerttula said, and was able to use it to bring people together and defuse tension.
“His wit, humor and respectful leadership are characteristics we will all miss, said Parnell in a statement. Both the governor and his father, former Rep. Pat Parnell, D-Anchorage, served with Grussendorf.
“He had a little bit of poetry for almost everything that came up,” Hudson said.
Grussendorf’s son, Tim Grussendorf, lives in Juneau, where he is a top legislative aide and a commercial fisherman.
“Tim has an awful lot of Ben’s intellect in him, it would be good to see him follow in his father’s footsteps,” Hudson said.
Grussendorf is also survived by his wife of 48 years, Karen, who lives in Sitka.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.