Juneauites remember Hickel as principled, tough, gracious

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Juneauites who knew former Gov. Walter Hickel praised him this week for consistently putting his principles, and Alaska, first.

Hickel died of natural causes at the age of 90 on May 8. His funeral Mass was Monday in Anchorage. Many Juneau residents and officials attended.

Among them was Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who first came to know Hickel when the then-Republican ran against Egan's father, then-incumbent Gov. Bill Egan, in 1966. Hickel won.

"They were enemies in the campaign, and then they became the best of friends," Egan said. "People didn't always agree with his (Hickel's) politics, but he was always very gracious. He was a very gracious person, with an incredible sense of humor. ... At the end he was a very good friend of my family's."

Egan said Juneau has Hickel to thank for the State Office Building and Mental Health Trust land selections.

"It was his vision to get Juneau moving, instead of talking about moving the capital," he said.

Former Juneau Mayor Bill Overstreet, Bill Egan and Hickel worked together to overturn a 1970s vote to move the capital out of Juneau, succeeding in 1982.

"It became our mission then to try to get that law repealed," Overstreet said. "They (Egan and Hickel) were the only two experienced former governors who had the courage to speak out against it, even though their community of Anchorage was in support of it."

Overstreet called Hickel "a truly great American."

Hickel was twice elected governor of Alaska, first as a Republican in 1966, and then as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party in 1990. In a brief tenure as Secretary of the Interior under President Richard Nixon, he imposed strict cleanup rules on oil companies and water polluters following an oil rig explosion off the California coast, pushed to save the Everglades from destruction by development and promoted the idea of Earth Day as a national holiday.

He was fired from that position in 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.

Those who knew him say this is just one example of Hickel standing up for what he thought was right.

"He stood up against the oil companies when everyone else thought he was a crazy developer ... he maintained doing it right was a legitimate cost of doing it," Overstreet said. "He made a terrific impact on most of America as a consequence of that."

Overstreet said the trans-Alaska pipeline was built "due in large part to the efforts of Walter Hickel."

Mayor Bruce Botelho first served with Hickel as deputy attorney general, and then as attorney general. Some of Botelho's initial apprehensions proved unfounded, he said, such as when he first thought Hickel was going to be "too 'pro oil.'"

"He proved to be tough on Big Oil. He always kept Alaska in the forefront," Botelho said.

Another apprehension was that he would slash government too much.

"Yet he ended up championing the need for a healthy state bureaucracy and he did it in the framework of what he eventually called 'the Owner State.' His reasoning went that a foreman of a ranch needs to have the hands to work the land - no one would question that. So why should they question the need for skilled professionals to manage the 100 million acres that was the state's patrimony?" Botelho said. "He could be very profane when he was angry, but he was also a very caring and tender individual."

Deputy Mayor Randy Wanamaker, who attended the service with Botelho to represent Juneau, said he "was always struck by his (Hickel's) openness and acceptance."

Said Egan: "No matter what you thought of his politics, he was always for Alaska. He was an incredible individual."

Overstreet echoed that sentiment.

"He was a great American, a great Alaskan, a great Anchorageite and a great friend of Juneau when we needed one," he said.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com. The Associated Press contributed to this article.



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