Ringing in statehood: Juneau man recalls Alaska's early years as 'revolutionary days'

Posted: Monday, March 17, 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.

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Looking back nearly 50 years later, Romer Derr sees parallels between Alaska's fight for statehood and the founding of the United States of America.

"Although we didn't have to take up arms - we did it legally and legitimately - it was a little bit like the revolutionary days," he said. "We did not like the oak that was placed upon us without us being able to make any decisions for ourselves."

Derr, 71, first came to Alaska while in high school shortly before the Constitutional Convention when his father was working for the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. He became enthralled by the grandeur of the territory and quickly became engaged in the march toward statehood.

"I got caught up in the convention and the way it had been done," Derr said. "Everybody of anybody around the territory was involved."

He believed the citizens of the territory should have more of a voice in their government and have more oversight over the management of Alaska's resources.

"We had full taxation with no representation, so we were doing the same thing in Alaska that the colonials were doing under British rule," he said. "They dictated what went where and what happened and we didn't have voting members of Congress or anything."

After riding the boom and bust economy of Fairbanks for a few years, Derr came to the capital to work on Juneau-Douglas High School. He remembers the ferry ride from Haines down Lynn Canal fondly and says he knew he had found the place he wanted to be.

"I spent the whole time on deck in the rain looking," he said. "It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen, before or since."

Derr settled into Juneau and became active in the community. In 1958, as the Alaska Statehood Act made its way through Congress, Derr was the president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. After passing the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, people were eagerly anticipating President Dwight D. Eisenhower's approval of the statehood act, he said.

As president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, Derr was asked to plan a ceremony to be held when Eisenhower signed the bill involving a woman holding an Alaska flag, one holding a U.S. flag, and another to ring the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of the present-day Capitol building. When news arrived on July 7, 1958, that Eisenhower had signed the Alaska Statehood Act, Derr rushed to get the ceremony in order.

"Everything happened and they were ready for it and the one gal couldn't get off work," he said of the one designated to ring the bell.

Efforts to get her out of work were unsuccessful, so Derr had to find a replacement to ring the bell.

"They finally said 'you got to do it,' so I did it," he said.

Derr gave the bell 49 chimes and speakers placed on top of the roof reverberated the sound of statehood throughout downtown Juneau.

"It was tiresome," he recalls of that day.

A photo taken of him ringing the bell appeared in publications around the country and was followed by letters from around United States addressed to Derr.

As the march toward statehood continued, there was a growing concern among some in Juneau that Southeast Alaska would not vote in support of entering the union during the special election held in August of 1958. Some felt the Seattle-owned fishing companies had too much influence in Southeast Alaska and that the majority of residents in the region would not endorse the Alaska Statehood Act, Derr said.

"The betting was that it would not carry in Southeast Alaska," he said.

"There were a lot of the old timers - staunch, outspoken old timers - that didn't think it was a good idea," he added. "Some of them today will still argue with you about it."

Derr said he believes there would have been enough votes in the Aug. 26 special election from citizens around the territory to approve Alaska becoming the 49th state, but said he and others thought it was important from a political viewpoint that Juneau and Southeast Alaska vote in favor as well. He and a few others got together and organized Get Out the Affirmative Vote for Statehood in Southeast Alaska, aimed to help drum up support of statehood in the region.

"It was basically just getting out the word, having somebody tell someone," Derr recalls. "It was a word of mouth campaign. We didn't spend any money on advertising or anything like that, it was just talk to everybody you know and get them to talk to everybody they know."

Derr said they began contacting people around Southeast and selling their case that Alaska should become a state so the citizens could have a greater voice in their government.

"So that was our basic selling point - you guys want to be serfs for the rest of your life or do you want to have control over your own world?" he said.

Alaskan voters overwhelmingly approved statehood during the Aug. 26 special election by a six-to-one ratio, with roughly 46,000 citizens participating.

Derr remains humble about his participation in the march toward statehood and witnessing history firsthand.

"It was just a bunch of young guys decided they want to try something," he said.

Whether or not their effort to sway the opinions of Southeast Alaskans helped make a difference, Derr said he likes to believe so.

"We'd like to flatter ourselves, that we made a difference," he said. "I think personally we knew of enough people that had been converted, that we probably did, because it did not pass by much in Southeast."

Derr said he still believes statehood was in Alaska's best interest and says the 49th state has been very good to him during its first 49 years. He was the owner of Harri Plumbing and Heating for many years and remains active in the community and involved in the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. He said he has many fond memories from the historic days leading up to Alaska's admittance to the union on Jan. 3, 1959.

"I was just enthralled with the opportunity to do something lasting," he said. "You know, most of us go through our whole life and never have an opportunity to change much and here was an opportunity to be a part of a new state. Not bad."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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