Last Monday, I had a chance to see a little history being made in downtown Juneau. Gov. Sarah Palin signed into law Senate Bill 29, designating the former Scottish Rite Temple as the Thomas B. Stewart Legislative Office Building. This made me happy for a number of reasons and I am fortunate to have been there.
I first encountered Judge Stewart many years ago when he was renting his house to some legislative folks from up north, as I was, for the legislative session. He struck me as profoundly intent on making sure other Alaskans visiting Juneau were being taken care of well. I later learned of the staggering contributions he had made over the course of his life as an Alaskan, from being there at the birth of the Alaska Constitution, to a legislative career, on to incomparable service as a judicial officer and elder statesman.
Judge Stewart was not someone I knew personally until I came to serve as law clerk to Judge Larry Weeks many years ago. Judge Stewart had retired from 'active service' on the bench, but that in no way means he had ceased to be active. He seemed to be constantly toiling in his own courtroom as a judge pro tem, helping to make sure people didn't have to wait an unreasonable amount of time for a hearing - because the main courtrooms downstairs were overbooked - and striving to settle cases that didn't need to go to trial. He also would mediate between opposing parties.
Judge Stewart graciously participated in educational events sharing his first-hand knowledge of Alaskan history and his unique role in the Constitutional Convention, always answering questions in a charming manner and directly imparting historical awareness.
I was excited to get word of the bill signing and delighted Monday morning with the crowd near the Rabinowitz Grove in the Dimond Courthouse Plaza. Mayor Bruce Botelho, Sen. Bill Egan, Rep. Beth Kerttula, and all our local judges led a thriving Juneau throng in welcoming Governor Palin, the members of the Alaska Supreme Court, and a host of Tom Stewart admirers.
The dignitaries spoke briefly, but eloquently, about Judge Stewart's devotion to Alaska, as well as the devotion of others in attendance.
When Judge Stewart's son, Caleb, spoke during the ceremony he humbly yet endearingly caused many to choke up, and certainly made me reflect upon the brief amount of time we have to try to make a difference in this world, and how truly amazing some people are in succeeding at this goal.
It is beyond merely appropriate that the newest part of Juneau's capital complex will bear Judge Stewart's name. This Capital Annex expansion incorporates another historic building into an increasingly high-functioning state Capitol, with the Terry Miller Building to the north and now the Tom Stewart Building to the east, connected by a skybridge over Seward Street.
The remodeled, renamed structure is a well-advised - indeed crucial - concrete step we take to be the best capitol city possible, a course charted for us by Tom Stewart's exemplary efforts to help state government function and serve Alaskans fairly and efficiently.
The capitol is always going to be a great distance from most of the state's localities, if not its largest population clusters. That means that when legislators convene they need to be comfortable, their work space must provide for all those who come with them to handle legislative business, including technological links to Alaskans who participate from afar. More space in Juneau translates into more access for all Alaskans to the working of government, a goal to which Tom Stewart devoted his life.
This summer as I make my way to Perseverance Trail, I'll enjoy seeing the completion of work on the building at Fourth and Seward streets, and its integration with the Capitol. I have great memories of working in the Capitol, and am now grateful whenever it is buzzing with activity, as it should be in Juneau.
The building is slated to be complete in August, and on Monday morning Governor Palin thanked the workers for not turning from their task, which is urgent if that deadline is to be met.
Once it is open, I hope the legislators upon their return will wrap up the unsuccessful experimental 90-day session and return to the proven 120 days, so that the expanded facility in which they operate is put to better use for all Alaskans. I know Judge Stewart's wisdom will continue to benefit work being performed in the Legislature, the judicial branch and the lives of all Alaskans.
Ben Brown is a lifelong Alaskan living in Juneau.