A big chapter of Alaska history closed Friday morning when Michael Anthony "Mike" Stepovich, the last surviving territorial governor of Alaska, died in San Diego. He was 94.
Family members told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that the former governor suffered a head injury in a fall on Feb. 8 while visiting his son Jim Stepovich. By Thursday all 13 of his sons and daughters, many traveling from Alaska, had made the trip to be at his bedside.
Stepovich was born in Fairbanks on March 12, 1919. The son of Michael "Wise Mike" Stepovich, a miner from Montenegro who arrived in Alaska during the Gold Rush. As was common in Alaska at the time, young Mike was sent out of the territory for high school and college. He received an undergraduate degree at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and a law degree at Notre Dame.
He enlisted in the Navy in World War II and set up a law office in Fairbanks after the war.
"I was a defense attorney, and I did a lot of criminal work," Stepovich said in a 2009 interview with the Daily News.
The political scene in Alaska began to heat up with talk of statehood in the post-war years and Stepovich ran for office as a Republican. He won a seat in the territorial legislature in 1950 and was elected to the territorial senate two years later. In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed him to the office of territorial governor of Alaska. He was the first person born in Alaska to hold the position.
Stepovich later recalled the $19,000 a year post as "the easiest job I've ever had. I had people doing everything for me." Official duties included overseeing appointments to various commissions and boards.
But the real work was selling the idea to Alaska statehood to the public and politicians. In a tenure that lasted just over one year, Stepovich became the face man for statehood, traveling and speaking widely in the 48 states and Washington, D.C.
Young, handsome, witty, a sharp dresser with a beautiful wife, he was the subject of numerous interviews and profiles in the press. He was on the cover of Time magazine. Life did a spread about the young chief executive and his big family. He was the guest on the popular "What's My Line?" television show. He received a level of national celebrity unmatched by any Alaska politician until then-Governor Sarah Palin was nominated as John McCain's vice presidential running mate in 2008.
Stepovich met with President Dwight Eisenhower on many occasions. "He wasn't very keen on Alaska being a state at first," Stepovich recalled, but eventually came around to the idea after enthusiastic lobbying from Stepovich and other Republicans, Alaska Democrats and members of his own administration. Stepovich said Eisenhower "was like a father."
In 1958 Stepovich resigned as governor to run in Alaska's first contest for U.S. Senate. After a spirited uphill campaign, he lost to Ernest Gruening by a small margin and resumed his law practice. But he remained active in Alaska politics. He was the Republican nominee for governor in 1962, narrowly losing to Bill Egan. He vied for the office again in 1966 but was defeated in the primary election by Wally Hickel.
He moved to Medford, Ore., in 1978, but maintained his Alaska residency. Long after he had officially retired from the law, he would regularly return to Fairbanks to help his attorney sons with matters such as jury selection.
He served on the Alaska Judicial Council for 25 years and was offered judgeships a few times but declined the opportunity. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Mike Stepovich was preceded in death by his wife, Matilda, whom he called "the guts of the family." She died in 2003. He is survived by all 13 of their sons and daughters.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.