Alaska statesman Red Boucher, 88, dies

LARGER-THAN-LIFE: City councils, Legislature and lieutenant governor just a few of his accomplishments.

June 19, 2009 

Red Boucher, an Alaskan whose boundless energy and limitless horizon carried him from war to business to baseball to politics to telecommunications to religion and more, died at home Friday in Anchorage at 88 from the effects of a stroke and pneumonia. Tenacious to the end, he fought death through pain and labored breathing in his final hours while friends and family Outside almost lost touch because their cell phone batteries couldn't keep up.

Boucher was the kind of man for whom the Alaska myth was invented -- no problem was unsolvable, no issue too tough, no limits impassable. Your sporting goods store is stuck with surplus baseball gear because the team that ordered it folded? Start a team. The city won't maintain the baseball field? Run for city council.

Boucher, arriving in Fairbanks in 1958 with a high school equivalency diploma from the Navy, served four years as lieutenant governor under Gov. Bill Egan and six years as a Democratic representative from Anchorage in the state House in the 1980s. In the 1960s he served on the Fairbanks City Council and was Fairbanks mayor, then, reborn a local politician again years later, was elected to the Anchorage Assembly in 1991 after failing to get elected Anchorage mayor in a couple tries.

Just this spring, Boucher was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for his pivotal role in the 1960s in establishing the Alaska Baseball League, an amateur summer league mainly for college ballplayers. For years, he had his own TV interview show on public access cable. He was an early advocate of wireless Internet access in the Bush. In the final years of the last century, he became so concerned by the Y2K bug that he got elected to the Chugach Electric Association Board to personally ensure that its computers would be updated and not crash at the millennium midnight.

Gov. Sarah Palin ordered flags to be flown at half-staff Friday. A celebration of life is scheduled for noon next Friday at ChangePoint Boucher's fourth wife, Vicky, was at his side when he died along with several of his children. As much as Alaska knew Boucher's public face, she saw the private. Sometimes finicky, often controlling, always inspirational.

Vicky, a skier from Steamboat Springs, Colo., walked into Boucher's sporting goods store in Fairbanks in 1964, a baby on her back.

"I heard this rather larger-than-life human being talking to somebody about skiing and thought, 'Hmm, wonder if he skis?' It didn't sound like it. I asked him and he said, 'Oh you don't have ski to be able to sell this stuff.' " Vicky said she challenged that assumption and offered to work a couple hours in the afternoon, if she could do it with her baby on her back.

"He went in the back and he said to Heidi, who was his wife at the time, 'I've hired this kind of strange girl but I doubt she'll work out.' "

A decade later, Boucher, then divorced from Heidi, a former Icelandic flight attendant, had lost a bid to get back to the lieutenant governor's office, and Vicky was divorcing her husband. Boucher was visiting a daughter in Seattle who had a picture of Vicky from the days at the Fairbanks shop.

His daughter told Boucher to give Vicky a call. "We were both at low points with life and kind of rescued each other." They married in 1976. Somehow, they merged the five kids then living with him with her three, plus Boucher's four adult children, but it wasn't idyllic. "You can't bring that much baggage into one room and make it work," but the kids generally figured things out.

Over time, Vicky and her sister, Marveen Coggins, got to hear all of Boucher's stories.

Boucher was born in Nashua, N.H., in 1921. His father, a French-Canadian World War I veteran, had been suffering the effects of a nerve gas attack and died when Red was 6. His mother developed multiple sclerosis and couldn't care for Red or his younger brother, so she put them up in the Catholic orphanage in Fall River, Mass., for a time.

HENRY BECOMES RED

Boucher's mother took the boys to Washington in 1933 for the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She pushed them in front of the crowd just as Roosevelt's open car was driving by. The legend: Roosevelt stopped, motioned the boy with fire-red hair to come over. Roosevelt asked him his name.

"Henry Aristide Boucher, sir," he said. He used the French pronunciations, on-RI arisTEED booSHAY, as a young boy's tribute to his dad, who had the same name.

"I don't know what kind of a name that is for a kid," Roosevelt replied, "but they ought to call you Red."

As The Depression deepened, Boucher became something of a juvenile delinquent. At his worst, he and friend hatched a plot to rob a Sinclair gas station using a BB gun.

"They were pretending like they were John Dillinger," Vicky said. "His story is he grabbed hold of the door handle and it was locked, and as he rattled it, the guy woke up from behind the desk and just said, 'Shoo, get out of here kid,' " That got Red to thinking -- what would've happened if he had actually gotten in there? It was a turning point.

At 16, his mother gave him permission to become a "ward of the Navy," and he officially enlisted at 17.

Boucher was still using the French pronunciation of his last name. "He said in the Navy when they said, 'What's your name?' he said, 'They call me Red Booshay, sir.' And they said, 'Booshay? Looks like Boucher. I think it's Boucher.' He said, 'Yes, sir.' "

On the ships, Boucher was fascinated by the use of flags for signaling, and eventually went to signal school. That was the start of his interest in communications.

In New York Harbor on his last tour of duty in 1956, Boucher was invited to appear on the network television game show, "Name That Tune." With a partner, he won $25,000. He donated some of the money to his old orphanage, generating a feel-good story that won the heart of New York, and splurged $3,000 on a new Ford Thunderbird.

The Navy tried to make him a recruiter, and he got some film offers. In 1958, the parish priest in Fall River asked him for help. An Irish-American senator was having trouble reaching the Portuguese community, and asked Boucher to help. John Kennedy was re-elected, and he gave Boucher some advice: Alaska was going to become a state, and it would a good place for an enterprising person.

OFF TO ALASKA

Boucher drove the T-Bird up the Alaska Highway. In Fairbanks, he represented a sporting goods company, then opened his own store. The town had a couple adult baseball teams -- one from the Air Force Base, the other from town. After ordering two teams' worth of equipment, the city league team fell through, and without competition, the Air Force team had no need for gear.

Boucher had coached baseball in Panama and knew the baseball coach at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, as well as Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers. They came up with a plan to bring college ball to Fairbanks. The Goldpanners were created in 1960, as was the beginnings of the Alaska Baseball League.

In politics, Boucher was a Democrat, though his support of Republicans like Gov. Jay Hammond and state Sen. Jan Faiks did not earn him credit with party faithful.

Boucher bought an Apple computer when they first came out. He was more impressed by the possibility of communicating with it than with using it for tasks. He racked up $3,000 in phone bills when he got his first modem. Yet he never used the computer to pay bills, and was still writing checks by hand when he suffered a major stroke in 2005.

Earlier this year, he attended his induction into the sports hall of fame in a wheelchair. He spoke and reminded the crowd that one of his mottos was Winston Churchill's, "Never, never, never give up."

Vicky pasted those words over his mirror at the house.

Boucher never recovered from the stroke and had been mainly bedridden since then. He turned for the worse about a week ago and family were summoned. The hospice nurse said it would be hours, but Boucher kept going.

At 7 a.m. Friday morning, he again turned for the worse. "He just struggled. He was trying to breath, he was trying to cough. He just wanted to say something."

Vicki took down the sign. "He was struggling so badly to stay. You need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them." Vicky told him it was OK, she'd be all right. Over and over.

"We got so desperate that we called the grandkids to tell him good bye. We called ex-wives and had them tell him goodbye. We called in a Catholic priest and gave him last rites. We wanted him to let go, and he kept staying. He'd quit breathing for two minutes, and then he'd breathe again. He fought."

At 2:45 p.m., he finally gave up.

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