This story originally appeared at KYUK in Bethel and is republished here with permission.
Hundreds of people packed Bethel Regional High School’s gymnasium on Sept. 16 to mourn the loss of Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., husband of Alaska’s sole congresswoman. He died in a plane crash last week.
“Well, Buzzy has filled the bleachers in this gym once again,” longtime friend Ana Hoffman said to the applauding crowd before reading his obituary.
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola stood nearby listening, stoic and clutching an American flag given to her by members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Honor Guard after their ceremonial march to the wooden casket.
Hoffman said that Peltola was born hard-wired for success.
“His Yup’ik and Tlingit identity connected him with friends and family across the entire state,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman described him as an accomplished hunter, athlete and provider. But above all else, Hoffman said, Peltola loved being a father.
“Just, for all his accomplishments, truly being a father to his children was really the dearest thing to his heart. And that was the role he was proudest of,” Hoffman said.
Eugene and Mary Peltola had a blended family of seven children.
The funeral was originally supposed to be in Bethel’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church but had to be moved to accommodate the crowd. More than 500 people showed up.
“I don’t know when I’ve seen this many people pack this gym,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
But, she said, a huge turnout was no surprise.
“I think that that’s a true, true statement of sort of love for Buzzy,” Murkowski said.
Peltola had a long career in public service. In 2022, he retired from leading the Alaska division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But decades before he took that position, in 1984, he began working for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. He became the refuge manager in 2008. It was a dream job for him because he wanted his children to grow up in Bethel.
“You can see leaders from a mile away. And Buzzy has not only been a leader in this region, but he’s been a leader statewide,” Murkowski said. “He knew how important being connected to the land and the resource was. He lived it. And he shared that. And I think the absence of his leadership is going to leave a void here.”
Peltola was flying a load of moose meat from a remote hunting camp on Sept. 12 when his plane crashed about 65 miles from the Southwest Alaska village of St. Mary’s.
Steve Wackowski, who described Peltola as a dear friend, said he died doing something he loved.
“I know he’s in a better place smiling down on us,” Wackowski said. “I know my family is gonna miss his moose meat and blueberry jam.”
Many people struggled to make sense of Peltola’s death, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“I was just talking to Gene about fishing on the Kenai. And a lot of folks don’t realize this, but in Kotzebue, in the ‘90s, Gene was our neighbor,” Dunleavy said. “Gene lived across the street from us because he was working for (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). But I’ve had many interactions with Gene over the last couple of years.”
Dunleavy said Peltola’s death was a shock to everybody.
“It’s unfortunate and sad. But Mary’s tough and she’s gonna have a lot of people around her to help her out and the family,” Dunleavy said. “We’re here today to honor the family. We’re here today to honor Gene, and we just hope and pray that everything goes well and the family and Mary are able to work through this, this awful thing that’s happened.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said that he was also in disbelief.
“My wife, Julie, and I are here just to be supportive of the whole family, especially Mary, and this is such a shock,” Sullivan said. “And Gene, obviously, had a huge impact on the state and spent almost 40 years in direct public service to Alaskans.”
Sullivan said that he believes in the power of prayer and how Alaskans support each other.
“I think it’s important, you know. We’re a big, big, huge state, but a small state in many ways. Everybody knows each other. And I think these are the moments where you focus on people’s families and trying to make sure they know they have support,” Sullivan said. “And like I said earlier, prayers really, in my view, really make a difference. And this family is going to need a lot of prayers. This is a shock, and sudden, and it’s way too young. And keep the prayers coming for this family.”
After the service concluded, the casket was opened for a community viewing. One by one, everyone in attendance waited to say their final goodbyes. Congresswoman Peltola personally thanked everyone as they filed by.
Buzzy was laid to rest at Bethel Memorial Cemetery where several Alaska bush planes conducted a flyover in a missing man formation.