Paving the way to Statehood

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2008

Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood to be celebrated on Jan. 3, 2009. If you know of anyone with a statehood story to tell please contact reporter Eric Morrison at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

George Rogers had dreams of becoming an architect while growing up in San Francisco. He had no idea that one day he would be helping construct the Constitution of the State of Alaska instead of designing buildings.

Rogers, 91, arrived in Juneau during World War II on assignment from the Department of the Army Office of Price Administration after studying economics at the University of California, Berkeley. The fisheries prices were relatively high during the war and the Army wanted to provide fish on Fridays, he said.

"They said, 'George you're going to Alaska to roll back the price of raw fish,'" Rogers said.

"I was assigned to come to Alaska; it was not by choice," he added.

Rogers said he still remembers arriving in Juneau for the first time in January 1945. The roads were not yet paved, the sidewalks were made of wood and "mom and pop" stores lined the streets.

"I felt like I was stepping back a whole century," he said.

After several months it became apparent that the war was nearing an end. Rogers and his wife, Jean, were considering a move back to California at the conclusion of the war to further his studies; however, a unique opportunity presented itself that would allow him to put his economic background to work in Juneau. Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening asked him about his future plans and Rogers said he wanted to move back to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D.

"He said, 'Well, give me two years of your time and I'll see to it that you get into Harvard,'" Rogers recalls of his conversation with Gruening. "I couldn't resist that. I stayed on."

Rogers' first assignment was to devise a revenue system for the territory. Prior to the war, there was a handful of random taxes and fees that did not generate nearly enough money to run the territorial government, he said. Rogers was asked by Gruening to help establish an income tax, a sales tax and a business license tax.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1950, Rogers returned to Juneau and continued working for the government in various positions. The fight for Alaska statehood was waging and the constitutional convention was scheduled to take place in Fairbanks in 1955 when Rogers was working as a consultant for territorial Gov. B. Frank Heintzleman.

"Frank Heintzleman said, 'George, I think you should get really involved in this because this is not going to be repeated again in our lifetime,'" Rogers recalls. "So he turned my services over to the convention, so I became the first consultant."

Because of his statistical background, Rogers was asked to help with the natural resources and apportionment provisions of the fledgling document. He described the social and political climate needed to create a state constitution that winter in Fairbanks as unique.

"You can never replicate the circumstances there," Rogers said. "We had been through a decade-long depression, a worldwide depression. We had World War II, and so Republicans and Democrats both realized that we've got to put aside political differences and look at the construction of our government. And it was such a wonderful, uplifting experience to have the two competing parties sit together and work this out."

Rogers said he was proud to help divide Alaska's four election districts into smaller units to help provide more voice in government for the residents in rural areas of the territory.

"I felt that the basis of my greatest contribution was to work on apportionment, to see as many people directly represented in the process as possible because our growth was not distributed equally," he said.

One of the greatest hurdles in achieving statehood was ensuring that Alaska would be economically viable. Rogers said he believed Alaska had great potential of becoming a state, even with its narrow economy.

"Otherwise, Alaska would have been just a typical colonial enterprise," he said. "I typify the colonial experience as one of being a warehouse, which you just draw things out of it when you need them and ignore it the rest of the time. And that's what Alaska's history had been and that's why I figured it could have been a continuation of that."

Rogers said he doesn't remember what he was doing specifically on Jan. 3, 1959, when the word came over the news that President Dwight Eisenhower had signed the proclamation admitting Alaska as the 49th state in the Union. However, he does remember feeling hope and relief that the long fight for statehood had been a success.

"Throughout Alaska there were great celebrations on that day," Rogers said. "It was a day of great rejoicing."

Rogers said he is still proud that Alaska achieved statehood, although he said he had hoped that the political leaders would have been more responsible and ethical with the opportunity presented to them.

"The first meetings of the (state) legislature were really harmonious, and then everything started falling apart," he said. "We got back to normal operation - backstabbing and all the rest of it. It fell a little bit short of what I had dreamed though, this brave new world."

In nearly six decades of living in the Last Frontier, Rogers looks back on the constitutional convention and the road to Alaska statehood as some of the best years of his long and storied life.

"In my memory it's one of the high points of my whole life because it was a period of great hope," he said.



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