Compass: John Cowdery was a good lawmaker, devoted husband

By ANNETTE DEAL-SHEPPARDJuly 19, 2013 

I will always remember the first day I met John Cowdery. I was being interviewed for the front desk job in his legislative office. He hired me on the spot. I walked out a bit perplexed. What did he see in me that made it such an easy and quick decision? Little did I know then that over the next decade, as I worked for John--a member of the House of Representatives and later a Senator-- I would grow into the position of his Chief of Staff and have the priceless opportunity of seeing in John a hard-working, selfless, caring man who skillfully met challenges and got things done.

Sadly, the pioneers of our great state are leaving us one by one. These are the Alaskans that helped develop our infrastructure, build our roads, and erect our buildings. They were visionaries. Some of them ran for elected office and gave back to this great state. John Cowdery is one of them.

John was a leader with a vision for Alaska's potential. As a longtime legislator, he was thoughtful about our communities' needs. When he arrived in Anchorage over 60 years ago, Spenard Road was still a trail on the outskirts of town. He helped turn such trails into the roads we travel on today. He could describe in uncanny detail many of the buildings constructed in his time. His passion was to see Alaska develop into the unique state it is today.

As Chair of the House Transportation Committee, John was instrumental in the allocation of funds to projects that promoted economic development and brought our resources to market, such as the expansion of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which became one of the top cargo hubs in the world. John believed in funding educational programs, especially vocational education. "You can't put a bad dime into education," was his motto. He also would say, "You have to earn a blister to earn a buck." He wholeheartedly encouraged young people to work in the trades as he did when he was young.

John never forgot his roots. Although he didn't have a formal education, he was a poet, writer, and one heck of a storyteller. His tales were filled with history and humor about his life. For instance, he would recount how he learned math and the concept of fractions as a young boy working on his family's farm by dividing their acreage for its annual sowing and planting.

John was a nuts and bolts kind of guy. He worked with his hands and his brain. He had a big heart and cared about people. Our office had an open-door policy, and we always worked across party lines. Whether you were a Democrat, Republican or not registered at all, he offered a helping hand. While other offices would only schedule 15 minute meetings, our office scheduled meetings for 30 minutes or more to make sure folks had a chance to be heard.

John created camaraderie and teamwork with the people around him through his music and storytelling. He instilled in his staff and others a sense of responsibility and obligation to continue to push for progress and move Alaska forward. I remember the last time I spoke to John. It was a few weeks ago, and I could tell he was struggling. I couldn't help but think of the profound impact he had on my life, my family, and on my outlook for what constitutes a healthy, thriving state of Alaska.

Today, let us continue to embrace the spirit of our pioneers who relentlessly worked for Alaska's best interests. Big John, as he was fondly called by his colleagues, will be remembered for the good man he was and the good things he did for our state. He was a heavy-equipment operator, construction worker, statesman, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, poet, writer, musician and storyteller. But first and foremost, John Cowdery was a husband of 60 plus years, because of the love and support of his dear wife, Juanita, and his deep devotion to her.

Annette Deal-Sheppard served for 11 years on the staff of late state Sen. John Cowdery, whose memorial service is today.

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