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‘Uncle Ted is back’: The story behind the new bronze Ted Stevens statue at the Anchorage airport

  • Author: Marc Lester
  • Updated: February 25
  • Published February 24

Megan Becker, 5, takes a look the statue of her grandfather, Ted Stevens, whom she never had a chance to meet. Becker is the daughter of Lily Stevens Becker, Ted Stevens' daughter. A bronze statue of Ted Stevens was unveiled during a ceremony at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on February 23, 2019. Stevens, who died in 2010, served in the U.S. Senate for 40 years. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Ted Stevens resisted the idea that the airport named for him should also bear his likeness when he was alive, his daughter Lily Stevens Becker said. He didn’t care much for the fanfare.

After his death, it took years for the family to get comfortable with the idea of seeing his life-size image cast in bronze.

“But now I think it’s time,” Stevens Becker said.

On Saturday, hundreds surrounded a 631-pound statue of Stevens as it was uncovered at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Some watched from a balcony above. Stevens, who served in the U.S. Senate for 40 years, is depicted seated and relaxed, as if inviting conversation with passers-by at Alaska’s largest airport.

“There’s an expression I tried really hard to capture that is like speaking but almost smiling,” said Joan Bugbee Jackson, the Cordova sculptor who created the piece.

Karina Waller, executive director of the Ted Stevens Foundation, which oversaw the privately funded project, hopes the statue’s high-traffic location will capture attention and educate people about a giant figure in Alaska history. She declined to say what it cost.

“It’d be nice to have something in the airport, not only for Alaskans but for travelers who say, ‘Well, who’s Ted Stevens?’ ” Waller said.

To many Alaskans, Stevens needs no introduction. His decades in the Senate, which began in 1968, made him one of the 10 longest-serving senators in U.S. history. He championed Alaska transportation and infrastructure projects, supported construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, protected Alaska commercial fisheries and played key roles in legislation that shaped the state. He was widely known as “Uncle Ted.”

In his farewell speech on the Senate floor in 2008, Stevens said he treasured every moment.

“I feel the same way now that I did in 1968,” he said. “I really must pinch myself to fully understand that I’m privileged to speak on the floor of the United States Senate.”

Stevens died in a plane crash near Dillingham in 2010.

A crowd gathers for the Ted Stevens statue unveiling. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Family and friends of Ted Stevens unveil the statue at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Marc Lester / ADN)

When the statue project got underway about two years ago, deciding which Stevens to portray proved a challenge, Waller said. Stevens was famously mercurial, by turns charming and serious, and sometimes Incredible Hulk combative.

Waller, a member of Stevens’ staff from 2002 to 2009, said she originally favored a strong and serious pose of the man she still refers to as “the boss.” Bugbee Jackson said she was captivated by the intensity of a lost-in-thought pose she had seen in a photograph.

Both say they were swayed by the input of Stevens’ widow, Catherine, who suggested an approachable posture for an engaging personality. That input changed the project’s direction.

“I think at the end of the day, you’ll see she was right,” Waller said days before the statue was unveiled.

The statue took about a year and a half to create, Bugbee Jackson said. Her other bronze sculptures in Alaska include the Veterans Monument on the Delaney Park Strip in Anchorage, the Alexander Baranov Monument in Sitka and the Joe Redington Memorial at the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla.

Artist Joan Bugbee Jackson created the life-size Ted Stevens statue for display at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Marc Lester / ADN)

By the time she finished the Stevens project, Bugbee Jackson said she felt like she knew the man well, though they had only met briefly once or twice. She surrounded her Cordova workspace with pictures of Stevens. She listened to stories told by the people who knew him best. She watched videos to study how he used his mouth and the expression in his eyes. She even borrowed his coats and posed friends in them to study their folds.

“I don’t want to just make a shape that looks like somebody. I want to convey something from within them that expresses more of the kind of person they were,” Bugbee Jackson said.

Bugbee Jackson built the statue from a rebar core, shaped with foam, then molded in clay. She paid careful attention to even small details, she said, like the texture of his cowboy boots and the design on his law school ring. Wrinkles on his face, one of the final steps, were carved with a fillet knife, she said.

“I kept him fairly on the young side, which I think he might’ve appreciated,” Bugbee Jackson said.

Waller said it was emotional to see the completed clay sculpture in Bugbee Jackson’s studio before it was shipped to the Valley Bronze foundry in Joseph, Oregon, for casting.

“I walked in, and it’s like ‘There’s the boss,’ ” Waller said.

Karina Waller is executive director of the Ted Stevens Foundation, headquartered in Midtown Anchorage. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Waller said working for Stevens was transformative. She recalls a demanding-but-fair man who instilled confidence in her. His staff learned to be “hyper-prepared,” but got to see a side of him the public didn’t, Waller said. He once gave her a walking cane on her 30th birthday.

“Kind of behind the scenes, most of the time he was more jovial, playful,” Waller said. “Unless you messed up on legislation.”

For some, memories of Stevens may have been complicated by how his final term ended. Days before Election Day in 2008, a jury found him guilty of accepting and failing to report gifts, including renovations to his Girdwood home. Stevens narrowly lost re-election to Democrat Mark Begich.

“I look only forward, and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me,” Stevens said in his farewell Senate speech.

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Then months later, the Justice Department moved to dismiss the indictment and void the convictions after a new prosecution team discovered exculpatory evidence that hadn’t been turned over to the defense. The judge agreed. Attorney General Eric Holder said he wouldn’t seek a new trial.

Waller said interpretive displays next to the artwork don’t touch on this period, but focus on legislative accomplishments and quotes instead.

“The trial was not his legacy,” Waller said.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who calls herself Stevens’ biggest fan, said the display would be an important reminder of Steven’s impact in a well-chosen location.

“I think he would feel very touched and very honored,” she said.

Rep. Don Young, left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski share a laugh as they sit with the state of their former congressional colleague Ted Stevens. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Oliver Leavitt speaks to the likeness of his friend Ted Stevens. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Ben Stevens poses next to a statue of his father, Ted Stevens. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Bob Penney poses with fishing poles at the newly-revealed Ted Stevens statue. (Marc Lester / ADN)
The statue of Ted Stevens gets a peck on the cheek from Katherine Gottlieb. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Murkowski, who has been Alaska’s senior senator since Stevens’ final term ended, said she keeps picture buttons of Stevens in her Anchorage and D.C. homes. On difficult days, she can imagine the voice of her friend and mentor telling her to “Get over it, kid.”

Murkowski said Stevens could be fiery, but he could also soften quickly. She’s pleased the statue isn’t an imperious depiction.

“I still can’t think of him without thinking of a little smile,” she said.

Murkowski, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, U.S. Rep. Don Young and Gov. Mike Dunleavy each spoke before the statue was revealed. Former Govs. Bill Walker, Sean Parnell and Bill Sheffield joined the crowd of invited guests in a central location near where the B and C concourses meet.

Many posed with the statue after the blanket was lifted. Five-year-old twins Megan and Chelsea Becker, granddaughters whom Stevens never had the chance to meet, approached shyly. Young joked the Stevens statue should be made of gold, because bronze was for third place. But the expression of Stevens, he said, was just right.

“I’m going to put him on a ballot. That’s Ted Stevens right there. Exactly Ted Stevens,” Young said.

Catherine Stevens said it was a meaningful moment for her family and for the Ted Stevens Foundation, which is also working to archive and curate Stevens’ official papers for eventual pubic release. She hopes the bench spaces next to the statue will be a special place for Alaskans.

“People can sit there and complain to him, tell him their woes, ask him advice or give him a lecture ...” she said.

“He’s here. Uncle Ted is back.”

Catherine Stevens, widow of Ted Stevens, laughs as remarks are given before the statue was revealed. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Artist Joan Bugbee Jackson takes a look at her finished work. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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