A colorful character in Alaska

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2006

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

One of the most colorful characters ever in Alaskan political life was Albert White.

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He was born in San Francisco in 1890, but migrated early to Alaska in 1908 to inherit his father's business in Valdez, a saloon and pool hall.

Sometime after that I was told he returned to San Francisco - known as the Barbary Coast for its wild and raucous ways and immortalized in part by Jack London - where Albert spent a good share of his fortune on the good life.

From 1917 to 1925 he was in Idaho where he became a protégé of one of the most powerful U.S. Senators in the history of our country. His name was William Borah. Albert served as a special agent of the Department of Justice and in the administration of the prohibition movement in several Rocky Mountain states. In 1925, he became an FBI agent.

With Borah's support he was appointed to be U.S. Marshall for Southeastern Alaska, the old First Judicial District, and he came to Juneau in 1926.

Albert told me a wonderful story of his days in Idaho. Although Borah was a Republican, the conservatives in his party were fomenting a rebellion against him. They were agitating to favor another candidate at the State Republican Convention. Albert, who was on his way to Salt Lake City, was taken aside by Borah. Borah told him to tell his agent at the convention to inform the delegates that if he was not re-nominated he would run as an independent and there would not be a single Republican elected in Idaho.

Albert dutifully hopped off the train at the brief stop to deliver the message. The next morning he arrived in Salt Lake. He picked up a newspaper. The large headline read, "Borah Nominated on First Ballot."

I remember Albert as a huge man. He was close to 6 feet tall and his girth was enormous. I would guess he weighed between 250 and 300 pounds.

He became a close ally of my father in the politics of the era. In 1936, they controlled the State Republican Convention at Douglas.

A celebrated incident occurred at a meeting. My dad, sitting in the chairman's chair, left for a moment while the business went on, not appreciating that according to the rules the other side might jump in his place and then control the convention. Seeing this Albert sprang up and rushed to the center aisle on his way to gain possession of the chair, just as one of the leaders of the opposition, W.C. Arnold, made a similar move. W.C. Arnold was also a big man. Albert and W.C. became tangled up together amidst flaying arms and legs, as Henry Benson, an ally, slipped into the vacant seat. In a moment, my dad returned and all was calm.

W.C. Arnold spent years representing the canned salmon industry. Henry Benson later became territorial commissioner of labor, an elected office.

In the 1950s political power was leaving Southeastern Alaska, as our population remained stable while Anchorage exploded in growth. So in 1956, my dad amicably retired and a new chairman from Anchorage was elected.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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