Remembering those who served cause for statehood

Posted: Monday, May 23, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

This year and this month are significant in the history of Alaska. Candidates for the nonpartisan election of delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention had to file their petitions by May 10, 1955 - 50 years ago. The governor had to certify by May 31, 1955 that petitions complied with the 1955 Territorial Legislature's CSHB 1, calling for the convention.

The special election would be Sept. 13, 1955 to select 55 delegates to the convention from throughout Alaska. The delegates would convene Nov. 8, 1955 for no more than 75 days to draw up a constitution for the state of Alaska, to prove Alaska was ready for statehood. It was a successful move. Statehood for Alaska was approved by Congress June 30, 1958, and proclaimed by President Dwight Eisenhower on Jan. 3, 1959.

The convention, to be truly nonpartisan, convened at the territory's lone college campus at Fairbanks, away from lobbyist and pressure groups.

It is especially fitting that this month we remember the 55 delegates to the Alaska convention 50 years ago. The last Monday of May the nation remembers those who died in service of our country. That means remembering those who died in battle, or those who served in the armed forces and died later. The delegates to the constitutional convention admirably served their state and nation, but in a different way.

Decoration Day, later called Memorial Day, began to honor Civil War dead. Northern and southern states held separate observance until World War I when the celebrations were combined to include veterans of all American military.

University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, a retired Army major general, formed a university-sponsored committee in 2003 to plan a 50th anniversary celebration of the constitutional convention. It is called "Creating Alaska; the Origins of the 49th State." The observance begins at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in November and continues through February in Juneau, while the Legislature is in session.

Goals of the observance are to collect historic materials pertaining to the convention and the statehood movement; record interviews with the remaining figures of the statehood era; archive all collected material in Alaska's libraries and museums; produce educational material on the convention and the statehood movement; identify historic sites associated with these events; promote public awareness of the statehood movement and encourage organizations and individuals outside of the University to participate in the observance.

This May, only five of the 55 delegates to the convention are still alive: John (Jack) Coghill of Nenana; Seaborn Buckalew of Anchorage Victor Fischer of Anchorage; Burke Riley of Juneau (elected from Haines); and George Sundborg of Seattle (elected from Juneau).

It is appropriate to remember those 50 missing delegates this Memorial Day. They and the five survivors served the nation in designing America's 49th state. Many were of what Tom Brokaw called "the greatest generation." They came home from World War II and the Korean conflict and immediately started to create this great state. A few delegates were parents of the greatest generation. Sons and daughters of the greatest generation defended American again in Vietnam. Their grandchildren continue to serve today in Iraq and other trouble spots in the war on terror, something to pause, pray and think about on Monday May 30, Memorial Day.

Still with us on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Alaska Constitution, in addition to five delegates, are Thomas Stewart, Katie Hurley and Doris Ann Bartlett. Stewart was secretary of the convention. He arranged for the site, the material, the consultants and the staff. His record as a war hero, legislator, statehood advocate and state judge have been reported in Alaska newspapers since he received the American Judicature Society's Herbert Harley Award earlier this month from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Katie Hurley has a long record of service to Alaska. She was chief clerk of the constitutional convention. She was secretary for Gov. Ernest Gruening, a clerk in the Legislature, a member of the Legislature and has served on state boards and commissions. Doris Ann Bartlett worked on the staff of the convention. She is the daughter of E. L. (Bob) Bartlett, the territory of Alaska's last delegate to Congress and one of its first two U.S. senators.

Those five surviving delegates and three staff members provide first-hand knowledge for the 50th anniversary observance.

Hamilton and his staff have created an advisory committee for the observance that includes Stewart as co-chairman with Board of Regents President Brian Rogers. Advisors include Katie Hurley and Doris Ann Bartlett and delegates Jack Coghill, George Sundborg, Victor Fischer and Burke Riley. Also among the advisors are former governors Mike Stepovich, Walter Hickel and Jay Hammond; Neva Egan, wife of the state's first governor, Bill Egan, and other Alaskans from the convention era.

More will be heard from and about them and creation of Alaska's constitution during the 50th anniversary. This is particularly appropriate following legislative action last year requiring the teaching of Alaska history in the state's schools.

• Lew Williams Jr. is former publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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