Funeral Mass held for former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel

Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Mourners paid tribute Monday to former Alaska governor and Nixon Cabinet member Walter J. Hickel nine days after he died of natural causes at age 90.

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Michael Dinneen / The Associated Press
Michael Dinneen / The Associated Press

More than 700 people filled Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Anchorage for the funeral Mass. Burial was scheduled Tuesday.

Among those in attendance were U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, U.S. Rep. Don Young, Gov. Sean Parnell and three former Alaska governors: Frank Murkowski, Tony Knowles and Bill Sheffield. Also attending was former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

Signs resembling the Alaska state flag, with blue fields and the Big Dipper in gold stars, lined the streets leading to the church. The signs read, "Thank you Governor Hickel." The service was broadcast statewide by an Anchorage television station.

Hickel's daughter-in-law, Josie Hickel, said the outpouring of support has been tremendous, ranging from old friends to complete strangers.

"People are paying their respects for Wally, for his many, many years of service to Alaska," she said.

Hickel, who died May 8, was twice Alaska's governor. The first time, he ran as a Republican, defeating two-term Democratic Gov. William Egan in 1966. Hickel had never held elected office before.

Hickel resigned in 1969 to take a job as interior secretary for President Richard Nixon. He was fired in late 1970, several months after he wrote Nixon a letter critical of the president's handling of student protests following the National Guard shootings at Kent State and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

During his brief tenure in the Nixon administration, Hickel imposed strict cleanup rules on oil companies and water polluters following an oil rig explosion off the California coast. He also pushed to save the Everglades from destruction by development and promoted the idea of Earth Day as a national holiday.

His political career began in the early 1950s as a crusader for Alaska statehood, both in the territory and in Washington, D.C. He also was involved in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which helped pave the way for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Born in Claflin, Kan., he arrived nearly penniless in the small city of Anchorage in 1940. He took advantage of the city's rapid growth following World War II to build a multimillion-dollar construction and real-estate fortune.

In 1990, Hickel won his second tour as governor, this round as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party. By that time, he was 71 and had waged several unsuccessful gubernatorial bids.

His four-year term was marked by frequent clashes with state lawmakers put off by his sometimes autocratic style and with environmentalists critical of his unabashed support for natural resource development.

He chose to not seek re-election in 1994 and returned to Anchorage to run his business. He also served as head of the Northern Forum, an international group addressing polar issues.

Hickel was an early supporter of Sarah Palin during her successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006. That support waned after she became Republican John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race.

Hickel said in a guest column in the Anchorage Daily News last year that Palin "became the spokesperson for the divisive voices in American politics."

Hickel is survived by his wife of 65 years, Ermalee; six sons; 21 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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