Conventional Bean Counter

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008

John B. "Jack" Coghill proudly describes himself as the "bean counter" of the historic Alaska Constitutional Convention.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I think my role in the constitutional convention, is I was the keeper of the key to the safety deposit box," he said.

Born in Fairbanks in 1925, Coghill, 82, said growing up the son of a merchant in rural Alaska during the territorial days taught him the value of a dollar. Convention president Bill Egan asked Coghill - the second youngest delegate elected - to be the chairman of the administration committee in 1955 in order to keep a watchful eye on the convention finances.

"He said, 'I want to make sure you save enough money so we can publicize the proceedings of the convention and the text of the convention so that everybody can understand what it really says and what it really means,'" Coghill recalled of a conversation with Egan.

During the 75 days of the convention, Coghill said he remained mindful of the limited resources the 55 delegates had access to for such a monumental undertaking.

"Out of the $385,000 I was able to give the statehood committee $35,000 of that back from our convention to use as money to get the convention ratified by the people of Alaska," he said.

Coghill said being elected as a delegate to the convention and helping create the Alaska Constitution remains the highlight of a political career that has spanned six decades.

"We formed what we called the '55 Club,'" he said. "In 1955, 55 people met for 75 days and wrote the state constitution. And in 1956 it was ratified on a 2-to-1 basis by the people of the state of Alaska."

Coghill said he became interested in politics at an early age growing up in Nenana in Interior Alaska. He said he learned early in life that Alaskan citizens didn't have the same freedoms and rights as the residents of the Lower 48, and he thought that should change.

"It was a dream. I wasn't a starry-eyed advocate of statehood," Coghill said. "I was a starry-eyed advocate that we needed to have more freedom under the United States Constitution."

Coghill returned to Nenana after serving in the Aleutians during World War II, and later began his political career on the local school board. In 1952, Coghill successfully ran for the territorial Legislature.

"I had an advantage over most of the people who were running, because my dad had already been trading in the area in all the villages for years, so the name was kind of familiar, which is 90 percent of politics is making sure you're well-known and the familiarity of your name," he said.

During the territorial days Alaska was divided into four election divisions that covered vast areas. Coghill said he spent several weeks before the 1952 election flying across the fourth division and contacting people his father had done business with.

"You had a relationship with them that was not just political, it was part Alaskana," he said. "So that created the attitude when I got elected to the constitutional convention, that we needed to have our own apportionment program."

Coghill said he was interested in making sure the apportionment of the state was set up in such a way that citizens living in rural Alaska and those living in the urban centers all had an equal voice in government.

"That was the motivation, basically, was to get going with it because we were not only second-class citizens, we were about tenth in class because everything we did had to be done by congress," he said.

The delegates worked diligently to create a document that provided all Alaskans with a voice in the government, Coghill said. There was great excitement once the voters ratified the constitution and the congress and President Dwight Eisenhower approved Alaska's admittance into the union.

"We felt not only the sense of pride but we felt the sense, that here we are, we finally got control of our government, we finally got control of our lives, we finally got control of our economics," Coghill said.

After Alaska was declared the 49th state in the union, Coghill was elected to the Senate of the first state Legislature.

"I think that sense was now hurrah-hurrah for us, we've obtained this and now it's time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work and organize our house," he said.

Coghill, who also spent many years as the mayor of Nenana and was elected lieutenant governor in 1990, said the state constitution is one of the great milestones of Alaskan history. The document has been vital in the first 50 years of the state and will continue to be for future generations, he said.

"The document that was created, that created the state, is so fluent that the next generation can do what they need to be done but it still protects you and I and our individual rights of being a citizen of the state of Alaska," Coghill said. "I think that what we were involved in, the constitutional convention, we gave them a good blue print."

With the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood on the horizon, Coghill said the constitution is as important today as when it was written.

"It's working, after 50 years," he said. "It's a living document and that's what it was meant to be."

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



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