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Jack Coghill, Alaska political icon and framer of state constitution, dead at 93

Alaska elder statesman and Interior icon John Bruce “Jack” Coghill, 93, died Wednesday morning in North Pole.

Coghill died of natural causes. He had moved to North Pole because of failing health and had been living comfortably at the home of his son, state Sen. John Coghill, according to a statement the senator released Wednesday.

Coghill was still a partner in the family store in Nenana at the time of his death.

“Dad was a firm believer in utilizing Alaska’s natural resources to build a strong economy and provide good paying jobs for Alaska,” Coghill said in his statement. “He had the same passion for Alaska, even at 93.”

Born in Fairbanks in 1925, Jack Coghill grew up working at the family mercantile in Nenana with his two brothers. His father, an immigrant from Scotland, started a trading post in Nenana in 1912.

Coghill graduated from Nenana High School and was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Alaska Command in the Aleutians in World War II. With his wife, Frances, Coghill owned and operated a movie theater, a roadhouse and a fuel distribution company selling fuel products to villages and towns through Interior Alaska.

But it was the pivotal role he played in Alaska’s push for statehood that forged his reputation.

“Jack has said the most important thing in his life is his marriage to Frances and raising their six kids,” his son wrote. “Next to that, he has said his greatest achievement was participating in the Alaska Constitutional Convention.”

Coghill, who entered politics with a seat on the Nenana School Board in 1948, served in the first territorial House of Representatives in 1953, several years after the formation of a legislative statehood committee. He was one of the 55 framers of the state constitution.

Coghill, one of the youngest in that group, was one of two surviving delegates — with Vic Fischer — to the Alaska Constitutional Convention at the time of his death. His is the third signature on the document, according to a profile by KUAC radio in Fairbanks.

He served as a senator in the first three state legislatures and also served in the state House. He was known as “Mr. Republican” in a body at least initially dominated by Democrats.

Coghill was mayor of Nenana for more than two decades. He was elected lieutenant governor under the late Wally Hickel on the Alaska Independence Party ticket in 1990 and served until 1994. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994.

As lieutenant governor, Coghill “championed” identifying Revised Statute 2477 state rights-of-ways across federal lands as granted by an old mining law, according to his son’s statement. He and assistant Mike Dalton identified 1,340 trails, established 900 trails to assert and asserted 11 of them, a process that continues under the Department of Natural Resources.

Coghill returned to Nenana in 2004 with the passing of his wife and was elected to the city council, his son said. That same year he received an honorary degree from the University of Alaska. In 2006 he received the Junior Achievement of Alaska’s Business Hall of Fame Laureate.

Son John Coghill flew back to Fairbanks from Juneau on Wednesday.

In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Don Young called Jack Coghill a “good friend who served Alaska in elected office for decades” and said he was saddened to learn of his passing.

It was Coghill who in 1972 urged Young to run for Congress and “worked tirelessly” to support his candidacy, according to an item in the Congressional Record from September 2015, when Young honored his friend for his service.

President Richard M. Nixon, left, talks with Rep. Don Young on March 15, 1973 in the Oval Office, the day after Young was sworn in. At right is Jack Coghill, a longtime Republican party leader from Alaska who directed Young's campaign for Congress. Nixon aide Richard K. Cook, deputy assistant for Congressional relations, is seated across from Nixon. (Nixon Library / White House photo)

It was also Coghill, Young continued, who urged the Republican state central committee to appoint him as the Republican candidate for special election after the plane carrying Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs vanished in bad weather en route from Anchorage to Juneau.

“I am forever thankful for his role in shaping the path that has led me to serve as the Congressman for all Alaska these past 42 years,” Young said during his speech on the House floor.

Coghill, during a 2004 interview with Terrence Cole for a University of Alaska Fairbanks oral history, said that despite Alaska’s size, he could still walk into “any village and know people," according to a 62-page transcript.

“You can’t do that in the Lower 48. You walk down the street in Seattle and people you say hello to somebody and they think you were strange. Huh," Coghill told Cole. "Here I can go down in Anchorage and I’ll bet you that the third person that I meet or in Fairbanks the third person that I see I’ll know. I’ll know who they are. I know them enough to say hi. That’s what is so nice about being an Alaskan.”

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