SITKA — Flags were lowered to half-staff Tuesday in honor of former Rep. Ben Grussendorf, who died Friday at the age of 69.
Grussendorf was a three-time Speaker of the House in the Alaska Legislature, and a longtime representative for Sitka. His death comes just a few weeks after the death of fellow Sitka legislator and good friend Sen. Dick Eliason, who died April 3.
A celebration of life is planned July 8 at Harrigan Centennial Hall.
Grussendorf was honored in March with the Chamber of Commerce Cossack Cap, which recognizes service to Sitka.
Those who worked with him in the Legislature remember him as a mentor, friend and role model.
“He was fun, engaging, you always learned something in the office,” said Kate Tesar, a staffer from 1981 to 1991. “He knew the true meaning of honesty in politics. ... He was an honest politician and the main thing that made him the person he was, was he was someone who worked well with everyone. It didn’t make a difference if you were Democrat or Republican, in the majority or minority: he took time to listen to them.”
Tesar said that’s probably the reason he was elected House Speaker for three terms (1985-86, 1987-88 and 1991-92). He was chairman of the Sitka unification Charter Commission in 1971, served on the Assembly and was mayor from 1975 to 1979. He served 10 terms in the House of Representatives.
Tesar said Grussendorf was the only Alaska politician to serve three terms as Speaker, and was the last Democrat to hold that seat.
“It shows how well he plays with others,” she said. His office became well known as the place to be Friday nights, where other workers in the Legislature would bring their dogs to play with Grussendorf’s shepherd-mix Hoot.
Al Adams, a former representative and senator from Kotzebue, worked with Grussendorf through the ‘80s.
“He was a kind, gentle person,” Adams said. “He was one that took the time with all members of the House of Representatives, and talked to them about issues, and he was good at that. His communication skills probably came from being a school teacher. He learned how to master politics at the same time. He was very good. We became great friends. He did a great service, not just to Southeast but to the rest of the state.”
Local Assembly members remember working closely with Grussendorf.
John Dapcevich, who served as mayor and Assembly member in Sitka, said Grussendorf and he worked well together and became good friends.
“He did a good job as speaker of the House,” Dapcevich said. “He and I worked together closely, and we got Sitka things through very well, behind the scenes. He was a great person, and I will miss him.”
Marko Dapcevich, whose terms as mayor came after Grussendorf had retired from public office, said Grussendorf was a mentor to him, and sometimes called him after a meeting to comment on the meeting, which he had followed on the radio.
“I used to talk to him all the time,” Marko Dapcevich said, speaking to the Sentinel from Joplin, Mo. “One piece of advice he gave me was ‘You have to praise Caesar before you slay him.’” Grussendorf encouraged him to try to be more diplomatic, a skill Marko admired in Grussendorf.