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Saying goodbye to a leader who helped Alaska come of age

Jill Burke
Family photo

A memorial Wednesday for the late state Sen. Al Adams, a beloved and well-respected politician, lobbyist and Alaska Native leader was nothing less than a living history of Alaska's coming of age.

Peppered among a crowd were politicians old and new, young and old, former and current, as hundreds filled the chairs of the auditorium at Anchorage's ChangePoint church for the late-morning service.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Native leader Willie Hensley were just some of the leaders past and present drawn to the mega church to say goodbye.

A beloved icon of compassionate, effective leadership and commitment to family, Adams leaves large shoes to fill. Those who knew him best -- family and close friends -- urged Alaskans to do their part to fill them.

Comfy slippers

Adams, who died at the age of 70 on Monday, loved slippers -- the Acorn brand made of sheepskin -- so much that his widow Diane has a picture of her husband wearing them while they vacationed thousands of miles away in Hawaii. Taking a moment to reflect on this memory at a reception that followed the service, the silliness of warm winter slippers in a warm tropical getaway struck her:

"Who takes their slippers to Hawaii?" Al Adams, that's who. 

Comfort was a theme in Adams' life, which is not to say he sought the easy way out. Rather, he concerned himself with the comfort of others. Following a servant's calling, he thought often about the quality of life of all Alaskans, like-minded or polarized, rich or poor, and did what he could to improve everyone’s lot. 

The mix of shoes that carried people into the farewell gathering reveal that Adams walked the talk. Crocs, Dansko clogs, sparkly black ballerina flats, open toed black leather sandals, sling back kitten-heel pumps, loafers, oxfords, wing tips, tennis shoes, hiking boots, green rubber muck boots in the style of Xtra Tuffs. Adams touched people across the state, regardless their path in life.

"He was of a generation that knew and gained friendship from every corner of the state," Byron Mallott, a longtime friend who delivered the eulogy, told the crowd.

A legislator who helped guide the state through its infancy, Adams was "of a generation of necessity and inclination that shaped Alaska as we know it today," said Mallott, a Sealaska board member and past president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Adams "came from a time that was still powerfully committed to his ethnicity, his culture, his traditions and his place" -- a generation that took its tremendous opportunities and obligations to heart, Mallott said. 

That Inupiaq grin

Adams was anchored by family -- his wife, children, grandchildren, people he put above all else. But as Mallott pointed out, Adams’ ear-to-ear grin radiated his Inupiaq essence, and could only have come from a person who loved and cared. He flashed that smile just about everywhere. Fishing with family? Smiling. Vacationing? Smiling? In his legislative office? Smiling.

Although Adams could be stubborn, he realized early on that to be an effective leader, you had to intently listen to what others had to say. 

"In politics, you have to give to get," his sister, Sarah Scanlan, told the memorial audience, sharing her brother's lessons and wishes. "He wouldn't want us to be sad. He would want us to continue his mission, his legacy," she said.

She urged the crowd to extend this calling beyond power structures and politics, beyond the welfare of friends and family. "He really cared about the little guy," she said.

Turkeys, cash to needy

Adams kept cash in his car to give to the needy, and provided meals to the hungry. Anonymously, he donated Christmas turkeys to Bean's Cafe, an Anchorage homeless shelter, and money for holiday "goody bags" to Friends Community Church in Fairbanks. No matter who you were or where you came from, he cared.

Even in death, he's still inspiring state leaders to step up their game.

"His ability to connect with people shown through from the start," said Vic Fischer, one of the delegates to Alaska's Constitutional Convention who first met Adams when the two legislators were serving their inaugural terms in office. Fischer admired Adams for how quickly he rose among the legislative ranks, and how well he worked across the aisle to get things done. 

Murkowski recalled Adams' legacy of galvanizing people from all parts of the state and his respect for the quality of life for all Alaskans, especially in rural Alaska where costs are high and basic community services remain years behind the rest of the America.  That’s a "heavy burden" but a mission Murkowski vowed to continue. "I'm going to continue to work with Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural," she said.

'Keep plugging away'

For Mallott, who first met Adams in Sitka where the two teens attended rival boarding schools, honoring Adams' work means not getting tired, and owning the burden instead of shifting it to others. Mallott, himself a respected Native leader, will honor his friend by rededicating himself to a better Alaska. "We've got to keep plugging away," he said.

"To serve our people, we must not forget is to truly be a servant to our people," said NANA Regional Corporation President and CEO Marie Greene. Greene had the benefit of having Adams as a mentor nearly her entire life.

When Adams wasn't rattling around the house or on vacation in his sheepskin slippers, his footwear of choice was tennis shoes, said his widow Diane. He wasn't particular about the brand, but he always chose gray ones. For a man who spent his life advancing causes that bettered the state and its people, and found power in cooperation instead of extremes, a comfortable athletic shoe in a color between black and white seems fitting. 

The walk, though, isn't over. Now, Mallot told the crowd, "It's your turn." 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com