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Neva Egan, the first of Alaska's first ladies, dies at age 96

Mike Dunham
Neva Egan

Neva Egan, the state of Alaska's initial first lady, died on Wednesday night in the Juneau Pioneer Home. She was 96 years old.

Neva McKittrick was born in Wilson, Kan., on Oct. 3, 1914, the third in a family of five children. She worked at her father's grocery store until she could save enough money to attend first Kansas State College, then the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where her aunt was a member of the faculty.

She taught music in the public school of the tiny Wyoming town of Glenrock for two years. She considered the $1,000-a-year salary to be "fabulous." Music was among her lifelong interests.

In 1937 she moved to Valdez, one of three new teachers hired that year. All were single women and all were warned that the town was "a little rough." Shortly after she arrived, one of the few local guys with a car, William Egan, and a buddy called on their hotel to invite them to a dance.

She turned him down, but eventually warmed to what she described as Egan's "kind and considerate" nature. They married on Nov. 16, 1940.

That same year Bill Egan was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives. It was the beginning of a career in politics that, aside from a stint in the Army during World War II, would last for the rest of his life. He later chaired the Alaska Constitutional Convention and became the first governor of the new state in 1959, being re-elected to that office in 1962 and 1970.

"I bet our family has been the only one in Valdez where national politics always has been discussed at mealtime," she said. "And sometime I get plain hungry for small talk."

In addition to Valdez, where she helped her husband run a grocery store, the family lived in Fairbanks during World War II and Anchorage during the run-up to the 1970 election.

But Juneau would become the city where she spent most of her life. At the Governor's Mansion, she made the beds and ironed her husband's shirts herself while planning events for entertaining hundreds of guests and picking up the supplies in the family car.

"When the clerks wonder about the boxes being too heavily packed for me to lift, I tell them not to worry," she said. "I've had a lot of practice in carrying groceries."

Whether laying out buffets for the whole Legislature or attending to a steady line of luncheons -- she always tried to invite each member and their spouse to at least one smaller dinner -- she enjoyed taking a hand in the kitchen. She was known as a good cook and her recipes were often featured in the food sections of Alaska newspapers.

"Bill's real easy to cook for," she once said. "He likes steak and french fried potatoes -- doesn't care much for casseroles or desserts. But he'll eat anything."

As first lady, she accompanied the governor on good-will trips to other states and countries. She christened the state's first ferry, the Malaspina, the Navy's USS Juneau and numerous other vessels.

In 1969, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She hesitated undergoing surgery because she wanted to be "on my feet" for her son's wedding. The doctor assured her that she would be back up in time and the surgery was successful.

Cancer awareness was one of many causes to which she gave her time in later years. She was a popular guest at civic events. "Her sense of humor ... is evident in her sparkling conversation, punctuated often by a hearty laugh," wrote one reporter.

In 1984, the mezzanine lobby of Anchorage's William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center was dedicated to her.

Neva Egan was preceded in death by her daughter Elin Carol, who died as an infant, and her husband William, who died in 1984. She is survived by her son, state Sen. Dennis Egan, his wife, Linda, and their daughters, Jill and Leslie.

The family will make funeral details and other information available at a future date.

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com