Another legendary Alaska figure is gone

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's legendary figures - the ones who helped shape the Last Frontier in truth, and in the nation's imagination - are mostly gone.

Anchorage Daily News File
Anchorage Daily News File

Ted Stevens was perhaps the giant of them all.

Named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact over the last 100 years on the state he loved, Stevens died Monday in a plane crash.

"Ted was a champion of saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, we are American citizens. We are one of the 50 states. We have a star on that flag," said 85-year-old Jack Coghill, one of only three delegates alive today who helped write the Alaska Constitution.

As to be expected, Alaska already has lost some of the great men who helped steer the state from territory to statehood in 1959, most notably Bill Egan, Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett. But the last five years have seen the loss of arguably three of the most colorful and influential figures in Alaska history, with two of those deaths in the past three months.

First, there was the death in 2005 of Jay Hammond at his remote homestead at age 83. He was the New York-born, barrel-chested, burly bush pilot who favored flannel shirts and jeans. He didn't initially embrace the concept of statehood but eventually wound up running for - and winning - the governor's office. He titled his autobiography "Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor."

To many outsiders, Hammond looked like the quintessential Alaskan. To many Alaskans, he was just Jay Hammond, a "great guy."

He served two terms as governor, from 1975-1982, and oversaw creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which uses oil riches to provide each Alaskan with a check every year for just living here. Alaskans love Hammond for it.

Then there was Walter Hickel, a man of smaller stature who preferred a sports jacket and slacks. Hickel, who was born in Kansas, arrived in Anchorage in 1940 with hardly any money and built a multi-million-dollar construction and real estate empire.

He was regarded as a visionary and maverick who began his political career crusading for Alaska statehood in the 1950s. He also twice served as governor - the last time, in 1990, at age 71 and after several failed bids for the office. He died in May at age 90, at an Anchorage assisted living facility.

Now, at age 86 Stevens is gone. For many Alaskans, the death of the man widely regarded as "Uncle Ted," was a shock; though out of office the last two years, he remained a political force, a mentor to many in the next wave of Alaska leaders.

During his 40 years in the Senate, Stevens helped champion Alaska's needs and funnel - without apology - billions of federal dollars to the young, still-developing state.

Stevens was wiry, short and cranky. His quick way of walking kept time with his clipped way of talking. He survived a plane crash in 1978 in which his first wife died. He lived long enough to overcome corruption charges that cost him his Senate seat in November 2008 but later were dropped by the Justice Department.

Stevens was born in Indianapolis in 1923. His parents divorced when he was young and he went to live in southern California with relatives. The Harvard-educated lawyer arrived in Alaska in the early 1950s and worked as a territorial prosecutor in Fairbanks. As a federal lawyer back in Washington, D.C., he fought for statehood.

What did Hammond, Hickel and Stevens have in common?

"I think they all were dedicated to the future of the Great Land," Coghill said.

Stevens' contribution came in his unrelenting work for four decades in Congress to get Alaska treated like a state like any other, he said.

"Ted's biggest contribution to the state was that he put Alaska, this big massive country that we have up here, on the national agenda," Coghill said.

Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said they also were at the right place at the right time - just when Alaska was being formed. That afforded them tremendous influence, he said.

"They had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor," McBeath said. "They helped create a state and got it working."

Coghill said it was an exciting time. When Alaska was a territory, it was mostly under the control of the Interior Department - control that the federal government didn't want to give up when Alaska became a state.

The shapers of Alaska had a different idea.

"We were excited about becoming a full-fledged part of the United States so that we could kind of forge our own destiny and our own future," Coghill said.

The men who became Alaska legends over time never really stopped advocating for what they thought was best. They stayed in public life, never hesitating to weigh in on the issues.

"They got there early and they didn't really leave until they died," McBeath said.

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