Art Beat: Stepovich; Design Forum; 'Seismic Celebration'

Mike Dunham
Design by Hachler and Fuhriman.
Photo courtesy Alaska Design Forum
Alaska's first family, the Stepoviches, are greeted in Seattle on a tour to raise support for Alaska statehood in the late 1950s. Daily News archive.
Young Mike Stepovich as a territorial legislator, early 1950s. Daily News archive.
Design by Hachler and Fuhrimann.
Photo courtesy Alaska Design Forum

They'll wake Mike Stepovich this week in Fairbanks. His funeral takes place on Friday.

It sounds sophomoric, but obituaries are a fact of life for newspaper people. 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, feels different to me. I think it's because it symbolizes the end of the pre-statehood era.

There was a certain 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 portal to the future. 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 snowbound youth, Mike Stepovich suggested that rosy prospects were 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 there 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 Alaska delegates 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 happen. 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?

But it didn't. Stepovich 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, was born in Juneau in the 1890s and 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. The phrase "acting governor" was so consistently applied to him in articles from the time and better histories since that I'm not sure that he went through the usual confirmation process. The New York Times obituary specifies that Stepovich was the last "presidentially appointed" territorial governor. Experts are free to chime in.

Back to the point. Stepovich was an optimist -- but also a pragmatist of the "The sky's the limit, but this is how much ladder we have at the moment" school. 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 often possessing full tanks of both enthusiasm and realism, haven't shown the same balance of the two attitudes. I'm not sure they could.

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 drum 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 seen yourself in the second-to-last star of the current configuration.

Since 2006 we've had governors who were born after statehood. That's the likely scenario for all time to come. Frank Murkowski will probably be the last who understood the pre-statehood mentality.

That's not meant to disparage the post-statehood mentality, the ramifications of which will have to play out over the next several decades. It's only to note that when word came the Governor Mike had died, I heard the distinct click of a big door closing forever on big piece of Alaska's past.

Design Forum hosts Swiss team

The Alaska Design Forum's next speakers will be internationally recognized architects Gabrielle Hächler and Andreas Fuhrimann, principals of the Zurich, Switzerland based architecture firm aFGh architects. Hächler and Fuhrimann are best known for residential work of beautifully formed concrete usually set in out-in-the-country type places, although it's hard to see how it could be applied to remote spots in Alaska, where the cost of flying in concrete makes it a fairly rare building material. (The first concrete sidewalks west of Anchorage weren't built until 1960.) See what they have to say at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, at Goldtown Nickelodeon in Juneau, 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Blue Loon in Fairbanks, or 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Anchorage Museum.

Celebrate the quake

Anchorage Community Theatre is looking for volunteers for their upcoming "Seismic Celebration" on March 27, the 50th Anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake. The fundraiser will include scenes and songs from a variety of plays and musicals produced since 1953, which will take a lot of people. Auditions "open to all" will take place at 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23 at 1133 E. 70th Ave. Call 344-4713 or go to for more information.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.