Alaska Notebook: A toast in memory of Mike Stepovich

Mike Stepovich

Raise a glass to an old Alaskan, Mike Stepovich, who became the face of Alaska's statehood drive in the Lower 48 during the 1950s. He died on Thursday at 94.

Stepovich was Alaska's first territorial governor born in Alaska, a man who knew the territory and why its people wanted to join the Union as an equal. He worked hard for statehood, and was one of those Alaskans whose work eventually won the support of a skeptical President Dwight Eisenhower -- the president who appointed Stepovich.

The successful criminal defense lawyer and Republican politician of the 50s didn't enjoy the same political success in the 60s, but he retained his wit and his engagement in Alaska politics.

In the early 80s, at a meeting of then current Gov. Jay Hammond and past governors, including Wally Hickel, Stepovich was asked about the long sessions of the Alaska Legislature.

Never mind moving the capital to Willow, still a hot topic then. As I recall, he recommended a legislative session in Dutch Harbor.

"They'll get the people's business done in 90s days."

One reporter asked him to comment on the how much Alaska had changed since he served as territorial governor. The boom was on, and Alaska had more money than it knew what to do with.

Stepovich smiled.

"The fundamentals don't change," he said, explaining that the game was the same, a fight over who got what share of the pie and for what purpose. The pie was much bigger now than when Stepovich governed, but he recognized the same politics.

Stepovich leaves 13 children. Condolences to them, and the consolation of rich memories. Their father was one of the founders of statehood.

-- Frank Gerjevic