Juneau leaders remember Stevens, his legacy

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Juneau leaders are lamenting the passing of an era with the death of Sen. Ted Stevens, who served more than 40 years in the U.S. Senate, and before that in the Alaska Legislature and the U.S. Department of Interior.

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"An era went away today," said State Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

The Juneau legislative delegation all come from long-time political families, and have known Stevens for years.

Egan first knew him when his father, Bill Egan, was governor and Stevens served in the Legislature.

Later, Gov. Wally Hickel named Stevens to the Senate after the death of Democrat Bob Bartlett. At the time a governor was allowed to name a member of a different party to fill a vacancy.

That appointment began a 40-year Senate career during which Stevens' ability to wield power helped shape the state and the nation.

"He was a great leader, he did so much for Alaska," said Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau. Her father, Elton Engstrom, served in the Alaska Legislature with Stevens.

"He affected through state and national policy just about every aspect of development of our state, from territorial days to present," she said.

"He came up here as a young man, and he was here as the state was just forming," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, whose father, Jay Kerttula, served with Stevens in the Alaska House.

"He worked side by side with so many Alaskans, to help build the state and build the infrastructure," Kerttula said.

Some of that information was crucial to Juneau, including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute at Lena Point.

Egan, who as mayor helped lobby for the research facility, credits Stevens with its being located in Juneau.

"He was really gung ho on that," Egan said. "That money could have gone to other areas of the state, and he wanted it in Juneau."

NOAA Alaska Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger called Stevens "a tireless advocate for U.S. fisheries and marine science.

NOAA honored Stevens naming the facility, which Egan said Stevens considered the "Woods Hole of the West Coast," after the senator who made it possible.

Prior to coming to Alaska, Stevens fought in World War II. Sometimes incorrectly reported as a fighter pilot, Stevens actually flew C-47 cargo planes over the dangerous "hump" from Burma to China.

Federal Gas Pipeline Coordinator Larry Persily said he met with Stevens a few months ago to talk pipeline issues and brought along a gift for Stevens.

Persily's father had been a printer, and during the war produced emergency maps printed on silk for fliers to carry in case they were forced down in the rugged terrain.

Persily brought Stevens one of the maps.

"He has an amazing memory," Persily said. "It was 70 years ago, and he was pointing out spots where they'd cached fuel drums for emergencies."

He's "best known for promoting causes and beliefs, rather than promoting himself," Persily said.

"A lot of the politicians these days, they're into promoting themselves, and that wasn't him," he said.

Juneau's Harvey Marvin visited Washington, D.C., with a Tlingit-Haida delegation in the early 1970s seeking passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and met Stevens. Stevens understood the needs village residents faced.

He said Stevens helped convince the oil companies they were going to have to help advocate for settling Native claims to get the pipeline through.

Marvin said that even on issues with which he disagreed with Stevens, he respected his positions and effectiveness.

"A lot of things that happened in Alaska would not have happened without him," Marvin said. "There might have been other senators who would have been there, but they wouldn't have been as effective."

The loss of the iconic Stevens is also prompting discussion of the risk of small aircraft, as many public officials travel extensively across Alaska's vast distances.

"It's a sad day, it's so totally out of the blue," Egan said.

"I really flashed back to the day Ann Stevens died, it's a really horrible feeling," Kerttula said.

Stevens' first wife, Ann, was killed in a plane crash at Anchorage International Airport, a crash that Stevens only narrowly survived.

Munoz, too, said she was shocked by the accident, even being aware the risks that flying around Alaska entails.

"I just feel horrible about that accident," Munoz said, who went with her father to Dillingham for the Bristol Bay fishery.

"I've flown that route many times in a small plane," she said. "It's a very treacherous route."

"My family and I are very saddened at his passing."

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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