Former Sen. Zharoff dies of cancer at Kodiak home

Posted: Wednesday, February 07, 2001

Former state Sen. Fred Zharoff is being remembered as a champion of commercial fishermen, rural communities and Alaska Natives.

Zharoff, 56, died Tuesday of throat cancer at his home in Kodiak. He had been fighting the disease off and on since his unsuccessful re-election bid in 1996 for the Senate District C seat, which includes Haines, Skagway, Hoonah, Angoon and some other Southeast towns.

Gov. Tony Knowles ordered state flags lowered to half-staff through sundown Thursday and praised Zharoff's "legacy of standing up for Alaska's commercial fishing industry and fighting to improve education."

Zharoff, a fisherman and public school teacher, served 18 years in the Legislature, chairing the Senate Rules Committee in 1991-92.

Rep. Al Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, said he had encouraged Zharoff to make a comeback last year. Sen. Jerry Mackie, a converted Republican from Craig who defeated Zharoff in the 1996 Democratic primary, vacated the seat, which was won by Republican Alan Austerman of Kodiak.

Kookesh believes Zharoff would have won the seat back, being highly regarded among Natives in Southeast. "People just looked up to him in my district."

Austerman called Zharoff's death "a great loss for the state." Zharoff was effective in getting state money for local infrastructure projects, he said.

Administration Commissioner Jim Duncan, a 24-year legislative veteran who served with Zharoff, officiated at the wedding for Zharoff and his wife, Barbara, in 1992. The legislators played racquetball, traveled together and once dressed up as the Blues Brothers as a joke.

"I found him to be a very caring and committed individual," Duncan said.

When counting votes as Senate minority leader, Duncan said he only had to ask Zharoff once where he stood on an issue. "When he made up his mind, he was unshakable."

Duncan visited Zharoff in Kodiak in November, after his cancer resurfaced. Although Zharoff couldn't talk, communicating by writing instead, "His spirits were great," Duncan said.

Former Zharoff aide Karl Ohls said patience and persistence were hallmarks of his boss' legislative style. Zharoff stuck with a proposed tax credit for seafood processors to invest in shoreside facilities, even though it took years of controversy to pass, Ohls said.

During his long tenure in the Legislature, Zharoff "never lost sight, during the time I worked for him, of why he was there and who he worked for," Ohls said.

Zharoff also was a bit of an actor, his former aide said. When he saw a strategic advantage to doing so, he could get so angry it "could make the hair stand up on the back of your head," Ohls said. "But right after, he was in complete control."

Zharoff had a good relationship with the media, even though he evicted Capitol reporters from their former quarters in 1991. Bob Tkacz, a veteran freelance journalist, filed suit, charging Zharoff violated legislative rules by acting without the consent of the rest of the Rules Committee. The committee later ratified Zharoff's decision and the suit was dismissed.

"He was a good guy," Tkacz said. "We got along well."

Bill McAllister can be reached at

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