My Turn: Murkowski family's roots in Alaska run deep

Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Once upon a time (about 1950) in the little town of Ketchikan, Alaska ( pop. 4,000) there were only two banks. First National Bank of Ketchikan was located on the northwest corner of Dock and Main streets. The other, Miners' and Merchants' Bank, was located across the street on the northeast corner of Dock and Main.

President of First National was Frank Murkowski. He and Mrs. Murkowski had a son, Frank. A director and major stockholder in M&M was attorney Lester Gore. He and Mrs. Gore had a daughter, Nancy, born in Nome when the family lived there. The youngsters were sweethearts in Ketchikan High School.

This was back in the dark ages before statehood. It was so far back it was before pulp mills and a timber industry. It was when the highest paying job in Ketchikan was robbing fish traps.

Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks and many other towns were depressed after World War II. Banks weren't doing too well. But First National and M&M persevered. Today First Bank has offices throughout Southeast. M&M merged with National Bank of Alaska and now is part of Wells Fargo.

Frank was a pretty good basketball player. This writer was running the Wrangell Sentinel and had to report that the Ketchikan High School Polar Bears (now called the Kings) traveled to Wrangell and beat the Wolves. (It is significant that the year after Frank graduated from Kayhi, the Wrangell Wolves won the state championship by beating Ketchikan and Anchorage high schools. That was before Anchorage became the center of the universe with multiple high schools.)

We assume that teenagers Nancy and Frank didn't sit around discussing federal deposit insurance or other bank business when they dated because after graduation (and after higher education) they married and raised six kids. Carol was born in Sitka, Lisa in Ketchikan, Mike in Seattle, Eileen and Mary in Anchorage, and Brian in Juneau.

Frank was a successful young branch manager for National Bank of Alaska in Wrangell when Gov. Walter Hickel tapped him to be commissioner of economic development, 1967-71. Wrangell residents had forgiven him by then for defeating the Wrangell Wolves and named him chamber of commerce president. Later, when he was a U.S. senator, Frank obtained $1 million in federal funds for the state to begin Wrangell's big project, a highway up Bradfield Canal to hook to the Canadian highway system. Past state transportation officials declined to go ahead with the project. We bet that the new administration's officials will have much more interest.

While economic development commissioner, Frank conducted a hearing in Ketchikan on a proposal to authorize beach log salvage. The program was promoted by the Ketchikan Daily News, based on similar programs in British Columbia and Washington State. The pulp mills battled the idea, fearing log rustlers. So it took four years before the Legislature authorized the program. The mills are gone today, but the state still leases sections of beach to those who want to make a few bucks salvaging logs. Every little job counts.

Nancy Murkowski, with Frank's help, began sponsoring a salmon derby at a resort on Prince of Wales Island nine years ago. She has raised $2.4 million for portable x-ray machines that are moved throughout rural Alaska to detect breast cancer.

It is unsurprising that inaugural balls and dinners are being held in towns from Nome to Ketchikan. The Murkowskis have called more Alaska towns home than any other Alaska political leaders. Starting with Nome, to Ketchikan, to Sitka (where Frank was in the Coast Guard), to Wrangell, Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Daughter Lisa and her father heard a lot of static when he appointed her to fill his U.S. Senate seat. But she has the credentials, aside from being born in Alaska. She has been a practicing attorney for eight years. She is married to a successful Anchorage businessman and visited Ketchikan frequently as a director of her late Grandfather Murkowski's Ketchikan bank. She knows Alaska business and economics.

She also knows Alaska politics, winning three elections to the state Legislature where her peers chose her as majority leader. She has served as chairman of the Labor and Commerce Committee and served on committees concerned with veterans affairs and women's health, melding her father's and her mother's interests.

It is a credit to Frank and Nancy Murkowski, and a point of pride for Alaskans, that our governor, his wife and their children have deep roots in Alaska.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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