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Last living territorial governor honored at UAF

Tom Hewitt
Photo by Todd Paris / UAF

Mike Stepovich was having a little trouble with the first stair this past Mothers Day.

He got the first foot up OK, but as he shifted his weight, his knee gave an involuntary shake and he had to pause a moment to let things sort themselves out.

With a half-shrug that seemed to say, "Here goes nothing," he mounted a second assault on the steps -- and this time he had their number.

Reaching the top he stepped out onto the brightly lit Carlson Center stage to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Now a sprightly 90 years old, Alaska's penultimate territorial governor is a major reason why Alaska became a state. When he was appointed to the position the prospect of statehood remained uncertain. In the nation at large, political opposition and public indifference stood in the way of adding the remote territory to the union.

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. Dapper, energetic, fresh and charismatic, he was the subject of numerous interviews and profiles in the press. He received a level of national interest unmatched by any resident of Alaska until Sarah Palin was nominated as John McCain's vice presidential pick.

Stepovich was born at St. Joseph's Hospital in Fairbanks on March 12, 1919. The son of Michael "Wise Mike" Stepovich, a Montenegrin emigre and gold miner, he left Alaska for much of his youth but returned after high school. He got his undergraduate degree at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and his law degree at Notre Dame.

"It wasn't what my father wanted," Stepovich recalled, "He always wanted me to be an engineer."

Returning to Fairbanks shortly after the end of World War II, Stepovich set up a law office on Second Avenue and began practicing criminal law.

"I was a defense attorney, and I did a lot of criminal work," Stepovich said, recounting a story of the time when he stood across the courtroom from a young district attorney who was trying his first case. The D.A.'s name was Theodore Fulton Stevens - "Ted" to his friends.

It wasn't long before Stepovich's successful career as a lawyer led him to politics. With the support of his friend and mentor John Butrovich, Jr., Stepovich won a seat in the territorial legislature in 1950. Two years later he was elected to the territorial senate, where he was serving his second term when President Eisenhower appointed him in 1957 to the office of Territorial Governor of Alaska. The post paid $19,000 a year.

AN EASY JOB

"It was the easiest job I've ever had," Stepovich recalled with a laugh a few days after receiving his honorary doctorate. "I had people doing everything for me."

His official duties often focused on appointments to various commissions and boards. But Stepovich said that the real work he did for the state was as more of a salesman for Alaska, traveling to Washington to meet with prominent political figures and promote the cause of statehood.

Stepovich met with President Eisenhower on many occasions.

"(Eisenhower) was like a father," Stepovich said. "He wasn't very keen on Alaska being a state at first."

Eisenhower's reticence, Stepovich said, was largely due to the fact that the president would lose some of his power to do what he wished with the land and Ike wanted a free hand in case relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated.

He eventually came around, Stepovich said, due largely to the efforts of Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton.

In 1958 Stepovich resigned as governor to run in Alaska's first race for U.S. Senate. (Territorial Secretary of State Waino Henderson took over as acting governor.) He lost to Ernest Gruening by a narrow margin and went back to his law practice. He remained active in Alaska politics, but after defeats in the gubernatorial elections of 1962 and 1966, he bowed out as a candidate.

In 1978, Stepovich and his wife, Matilda, moved to Medford, Ore.

And so on a drizzly day in early May, Stepovich walked out onto the Carlson Center stage, as UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers spoke of the accomplishments of the first Alaska-born governor. As Rogers presented Stepovich with his doctoral hood, the audience clapped heartily. Several members of the Fairbanks branch of the Stepovich family stood beaming as their patriarch received his honor and walked briskly back to his seat among the graduates.

The next Wednesday afternoon, Stepovich was holding forth at a table in the back of Soapy Smith's, his son Nick's restaurant in downtown Fairbanks. Wearing a butterscotch jacket and a green sweater, he entertained a parade of old Fairbanks friends and well-wishers who had heard he was in town and were dropping by the restaurant to say hello.

"You should run for governor again," said an elderly gentleman at Stepovich's table. "The way things are, I bet you could win!"

"Hell, I'd vote for you," said another man at the table.

Despite such entreaties, Stepovich has no plans to make a dark horse run in 2010. He appears happy to have left active politics behind, though he clearly keeps up with current affairs.

"Fundamentally I think Alaska politics are still probably the same," he said, looking out onto Second Avenue. "It's just larger, and more complex. When I was governor, it was like Orville Wright and his plane, and now it's a 747 jet with 600 people on board. Larger, and more complex."

Stepovich also expressed hope that Gov. Palin's vice-presidential candidacy will have positive effects for the state.

"Alaska has always been an intriguing place," he said, "People are always curious what it's like up here, and maybe this will give them a reason to come and see."

Although he has been living outside Alaska for morre than 30 years, Stepovich has maintained his residency here and still has strong ties to the state. After he retired from actively practicing law, he still occasionally returned to Fairbanks to help his attorney sons with jury selection. He also served on the Alaska Judicial Council for 25 years, and was offered judgeships a few times but declined the opportunity.

A FAMILY MAN

More than any other vocation he has practiced in his life, Stepovich is a family man. With his wife Matilda, he raised 13 children, nine of whom still live in Alaska. He is quick to give credit to Matilda, saying that her job as a mother was far more difficult than his as governor.

"She was the guts of the family," Stepovich said, "A mother, she's a schoolteacher, she's a nurse, she's a cook, she's a chauffeur..." Stepovich's voice drifted off as his gaze wandered out onto the sunny street again.

Matilda died in November 2003. Five and a half years later, it is clear to the former governor that no matter his own political accomplishments, his most enduring legacy -- his family -- was the responsibility of his wife.

"I get the honors," Stepovich said, shifting in his chair, "But what I did was easy. It was easy compared to what she did."


TOM HEWITT
AROUND ALASKA
Anchorage