My Turn: Juneau viewed as an also-ran

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

There used to be a skinny guy with black hair in Juneau who could be seen pushing a very large woman around town in a wheelchair. I felt sorry for that guy, who sometimes seemed out of breath, because he had quite a job to do with all of the downtown hills and traffic dangers.

That's what is going on in Alaska now with the economy. We have this big, fat permanent fund that we can push around all over the place. But because we don't want to face reality about state-funding needs - despite declining oil production - everybody waits with bated breath for how much free money they will personally get in the next dividend cycle, knowing in their hearts that sooner or later it will stop happening. Then the politicians will be expected to come up with a new plan, so everybody keeps getting something for nothing in this new spirit of Alaska.

Discovery of Prudhoe Bay oil happened at the same time I concluded my public education at East Anchorage High School. This was the break Alaska had been waiting for. Alaska had been dawdling along with the Kenai fields and doing the best we could with timber, mining and fishing, but we were not much better off than some third-world countries.

During the summer following my graduation in 1969, I worked for Anchorage senator Nick Begich, cleaning up a construction site on East 24th Avenue and taking care of his kids. One of them was 7-year-old Mark Begich - now the mayor of Anchorage.

It was a summer of revelations. Man walked on the moon. Alaska would have to settle with the aboriginal people for the right to realize our potential oil bonanza. And my only hope for participating in the exciting future ahead was to enroll in Anchorage Community Collage. It was opening in a new campus at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Providence Avenue that fall. Nick urged me to do this.

I didn't know then that Sen. Begich would become a U.S. Representative, and that he would disappear a few years later on a campaign flight from Anchorage to Juneau with House Speaker Hale Boggs. From the perspective of a kid just out of high school, Nick was just a regular guy - with some funny idiosyncrasies. He used to be an Anchorage School District teacher and did something in the legislature. At my next job during the fall, working for a photo reproduction company, I designed Nick's green and orange campaign signs. He had them printed on to sticky-back to be placed on reusable 4 x 8 plywood boards. We lost touch after that.

Back then, Alaska was about to be rich! Our destiny was tied to oil, and many opportunities would be ahead if we applied ourselves and participated in the process that was unfolding. I got so excited that I involved myself in the Democratic Party (that Nick was a member of) and served as a sergeant-at-arms in the contentious 1972 Democratic Convention at the new University of Alaska Fairbanks Wood Center. It was a heady experience.

Alaska has changed a lot since then. Anchorage has become a world-class city and Juneau is regarded in the same lineup as Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Kenai and Prince Rupert, B.C. - possible travel destinations whenever the PFD breaks $2,000.

Do you wonder about what this has to do with the black-haired guy who used to push his companion around the streets of Juneau? Well, I've seen them a couple of times recently in Anchorage. She has a motorized wheelchair he walks next to ever-so-casually.

Donn Liston lived in Juneau 20 years.

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