Alaska's first ladies gather for documentary

Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2005

When Alaska became a state more than 45 years ago, keeping house and home at the Governor's Mansion was a work in progress.

Neva Egan, wife of Gov. Bill Egan, remembers having to do the grocery shopping and answer phone calls.

"I used to tell them I was the housekeeper," Egan said at a rare gathering of six governors' wives Tuesday at the mansion. It was the first meeting of its kind in Alaska.

Memories of the matriarchs were recorded for an Alaska public broadcasting documentary to be aired in December.

The six women attending were Egan; Ermalee Hickel; Bella Gardiner Hammond; Michael Margaret Stewart, ex-wife of Steve Cowper; Susan Morris Knowles; and Nancy Murkowski.

KTOO station manager Jim Mahan said the focus is the history of the mansion through the eyes of the wives.

"It was going to be a 30-minute program but we have so much material it may blossom to 60 minutes," Mahan said.

The station received a $25,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation for the documentary and is relying on other funds as well, Mahan said.

The women were quite vocal about not calling their former residence a mansion, but a house.

"A house is where you tend to think of it as your home," Hickel said.

All except Egan live outside of Juneau. The wives said they missed the short walks to hiking trails, views of the cruise ships and the 15-minute drive to a ski slope.

Over the years, restorations were completed and furniture was replaced.

"The house is very, very different here from when Steve Cowper and I had the opportunity to be here for four years," said Stewart. "The house has vastly improved."

Murkowski is involved with fundraising for needed repairs on the mansion, as several beams are cracked, window seals are rotting and pipes are leaking. The building was recently added to the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation's list of the state's Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties for 2005.

The Friends of the Alaska Governor's Mansion Foundation has raised $80,000 to save the building, but are not ready to start renovating, Murkowski said.

"This house has sufficient public value and it should be considered worthy of state funds," said Hickel, regarding a question about using state funds for the repairs.

Mahan said the main goal of the documentary is not to raise money for the mansion or bring awareness to its needs but to tell the stories of the women behind Alaska's governors.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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