Stepovich's passing marks the end of the territorial era

Posted by Mike Dunham on February 14, 2014 

The next Governor of Alaska to make the cover was Sarah Palin.

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They’ll wake Mike Stepovich next week in Fairbanks. His funeral takes place on Feb. 28.

It sounds sophomoric, but obituaries are a fact of newspaper life. I’ve written several for old timers — Larry Carr, Howard Pollock, Katie John, etc. 

But the death of former territorial governor Michael Anthony Stepovich at age 94, on Valentine’s Day, has a different feel to me. I think it’s because it symbolizes the end of the pre-statehood era.

We had a different attitude in the territorial era. We romanticize it now, but things were tougher. One got tired of repeated power outages, narrow gravel roads, patchy phone service, the high cost of everything, the feast-or-famine opportunities.

But it was the promise of a feast that kept us going, that motivated grown-ups to push two-wheel drive cars through uncleared streets and kids to look at school as if it were a shining temple. Grumbling and laughter came in about equal proportions, but both carried a sense of pride. Achieving some small new comfort after prolonged efforts was experienced with the joy of a great victory. 

More than anyone else in my youth, Mike Stepovich suggested that a future was possible in Alaska. I recall looking at the cover of Time magazine with his portrait on it and thinking, “This is us. The rest of the country finally knows we exist. We’re going to get sidewalks and roads and flush toilets!” (Never mind the town where I saw the magazine 50-plus years ago still doesn’t have a road and many are still using honey buckets.)

History books extend much credit for making Alaska a state to the back-room negotiations with national power brokers by Bob Bartlett and Bill Egan’s heavy lifting among Alaskan officers at the Constitutional Convention. Fair enough, but Stepovich’s constant promotion of statehood to the American public played an equally important role, the third leg of the stool that ultimately made it possible. No one could see the smiling, handsome young Alaskan charming the panel on “What’s My Line?” without liking him and, by extension, the people whom he represented. (Full disclosure. I didn’t see the show. We didn’t have television in Mountain Village.) Here was proof that Alaskans weren’t just parky-clad hunters, whiskered sourdoughs or capitalist robber barons. 

In an interview some years ago, Stepovich sounded philosophical about his life after politics. It was unlikely that any Republican could win statewide office in 1958, he observed. His campaign for senate that year was quixotic from the start, although former governor Ernest Gruening had accumulated no small number of enemies during his years as governor. Somewhat to the surprise of pundits, the contest was too close to call until the final ballots were counted. With another couple of weeks or more media, who knows what might have happened? 

Stepovich was the first to acknowledge that it didn’t happen. He ran against Egan in 1962, another impossible dream but one that, again came closer to being achieved than predicted. When he lost the Republican primary for governor to Wally Hickel in 1966, he realized that his time had passed and cheerfully moved on to other things.

In some ways, Stepovich was the John Kennedy of territorial Alaska. He was the first chief executive born in the 20th century and the first born in Alaska. 

Well, put an asterisk on that. Waino Hendrickson, the Secretary of State, born in Juneau was acting governor in the period just before and after Stepovich’s term. But it was a pro forma thing; someone had to sign the checks and executive orders and it fell to him. I’m not sure that he went through the usual confirmation process, though experts may correct that impression. Still, it’s probably more accurate to note Hendrickson as the “last territorial governor.”

(Egan is Alaska’s only native-born governor since statehood.)  

Back to the point. Stepovich was an optimist — but also a pragmatist. It was a balance that many Alaskans had in those days, a deep yearning for things that might seem out of reach, tempered by a clear-eyed understanding of when to cut your losses and make do.

That attitude was palpable in some of the governors who followed but, it seems to me, only in those who personally experienced the territorial period, such as Egan, Hammond or Hickel. Those who showed up after statehood, while generally possessing full tanks of both enthusiasm and realism, don’t have the same balance of the two attitudes. They can’t. 

It’s one thing to figure out how you’re going to make it when you’re counting the gallons of fuel oil left in the tank and the pennies in the piggy bank and it’s a long time until fishing season. It’s a different thing to figure out how you’re going to make it when you’re in charge of an enterprise possessing billions and billions of dollars.

It’s one thing to have pledged allegiance to a 48-star flag while wondering how you fit in it and another to have always have seen yourself in the second-to-last star of the current configuration. 

The governors since 2006 were born after statehood. That’s the likely scenario for future governors. Frank Murkowski will probably be the last who, at some very real level, understood the pre-statehood mentality.

 

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