Alaska News

Wally Hickel, Aug. 18, 1919 - May 7, 2010

Wally Hickel, who died Friday night in Anchorage, liked to tell a story about stopping at the village of Point Hope after becoming governor in 1990. "Welcome governor," said the woman who led a group of official greeters. "You're only the second governor we've ever had here. The last was a guy named Hickel back in 1967."

Hickel's giant strides across Alaska were felt for generations. He was a dreamer who talked about building a water pipeline to California and an undersea railroad to Siberia, and a doer who pushed through tax settlements with the oil industry that gave billions of dollars to the state treasury.

"He was almost a seer with his visions," said Charlie Cole, Hickel's attorney general in the 1990s. "He'd have these visions and expect us members of his Cabinet to go look into them and come back and report to him, which we did. Sometimes we'd say, 'This isn't a very good idea, governor.' Other times we'd say, 'What a magnificent thought.' "

Then there were the Hickelisms. "You can't let nature run wild," might be the most famous quote. But there were others. "You can only clean up the environment with progress." Or "a tree looking at another tree doesn't really do anything."

Hickel, Republican governor from 1966 to 1968 and governor under the Alaskan Independence Party flag from 1990 to 1994, had personal politics that defied easy characterization.

Cole remembers a Cabinet meeting where he brought up clear-cut logging and asked what the administration's position was. Cole recalled that Commerce Commissioner Glenn Olds responded it was a fine practice, and proceeded to explain why, and the Environmental Conservation commissioner agreed it was the thing to do.

"The next day I happen to be down sitting in the governor's office just with him, as we often did, talking. He said, 'Charlie, I'm glad you brought up that clear cutting yesterday. I don't like it one bit.' "



Hickel grew up on his family's sharecropper farm in Kansas. Severely dyslexic and mostly self-educated, he never went to college and his language was peppered with "he don't's" and "pert nears" from his childhood on the plains he plowed as a boy.

He learned to depend on his startling memory, able into his 80s to cite the month 40 years ago when some event happened. He always credited an instinctual voice inside him, a voice that Hickel described as the "little man," which guided his decisions and smiled on him when he was right.

"My little guy. He's my buddy. He never gets mad. Sometimes he hides. But then he comes out," he was quoted in the "Wit and Wisdom of Wally Hickel," a collection of Hickelisms assembled by his close aide and friend Malcolm Roberts.

Hickel, a welterweight Golden Gloves boxing champion of Kansas, wanted to travel. He was going to go to Australia at the age of 21. But, learning it would take weeks for the passport and visa, headed for Alaska. He arrived in the steamship S.S. Yukon in 1940, to hear him tell it with just 37 cents in his pocket.

He took whatever work he could find, from logging to working as a bouncer at an Anchorage saloon called the South Seas. Hickel married Janice Cannon, the daughter of a pioneer family, who died of illness in 1943.

Hickel worked as a flight inspector for the armed services until the end of World War II, checking out newly assembled aircraft including "Lend Lease" planes being sent from Alaska to help the Russians fight Nazi Germany. In 1945, he married Ermalee Strutz, who he described in a book as "delicate as a butterfly, but also tougher than a boot."

Hickel began building houses for GIs in the postwar boom of Anchorage, always taking the profits and betting them on new ventures. It was a start he built into rental units, hotels and shopping centers, becoming a millionaire, one of Alaska's wealthiest men. He built his flagship, the Hotel Captain Cook, before the rubble was cleared from the Good Friday earthquake in 1964.

Hickel worked with Anchorage architect Ed Crittenden on his early projects. "I've heard some stories about how Wally would show up at Ed's house and say 'design me this' and he'd lie down on the sofa and go to sleep," said Anchorage writer Charles Wohlforth, who wrote the 2002 book "Crisis in the Commons" with Hickel.

"Ed was like furiously working and Wally would wake up, Ed hands him the plans and he goes and builds the project," Wohlforth said.

Vic Fischer, a former Democratic legislator and delegate to the state Constitutional convention, remembers Hickel in 1953 building one of the first quality hotels in the frontier town of Anchorage. It was called the Travelers Inn and a big deal when it first opened, Fischer said. Hickel followed that up with the second Travelers Inn in Fairbanks.

Fischer considered Hickel a good friend and visited him at the hospital until days before his death.

"Wally was a dreamer and a doer and he really loved Alaska. Whatever he did was always designed to make Alaska better," Fischer said. "He used to say that he is beyond parties, basically he felt we should be not just bipartisan, we should do things nonpartisan for the sake of Alaska."


Fischer worked with Hickel in the fight for statehood in the 1950s. Hickel spoke of flying to Washington, D.C., as a young businessman in 1952, saying he managed to convince the leading Senate Republican, Robert Taft, that Alaska needed at least 100 million acres in order to survive as a state.

In 1966, Hickel ran as a Republican for governor and defeated the Democratic incumbent, Bill Egan. He helped to open the North Slope to oil development, though drawing criticism for the "Hickel Highway," an ice road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay that left a scar when winter ended. Hickel stood behind the road decision, saying it triggered a psychology, a "doer" attitude, that ended up making Prudhoe oil development a reality.

Halfway through his term, in 1968, President Richard Nixon asked Hickel to become Interior secretary. Hickel was assailed by environmentalists during his confirmation hearings. There were thousands of angry letters and the Sierra Club decided for the first time in its history to oppose the confirmation of a Cabinet officer.


But views of him changed after his handling of the one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history, the Santa Barbara oil spill. He shut down drilling in Santa Barbara Channel and wrote regulations to control offshore drilling, including making the oil industry financially liable for well blowouts.

Hickel later placed seven species of whales on the endangered list, fought to protect the Everglades in Florida, and his staff reached out to the country's youth with programs like "Earth Day" in 1970.

He didn't get along with Nixon. Hickel, disturbed by the administration's decision to bomb Cambodia and the bloody crackdown on anti-war activists at Kent State, wrote a letter to Nixon chiding him for not listening to the youth.

"I believe this administration finds itself today embracing a philosophy which appears to lack appropriate concern for the attitude of a great mass of Americans -- our young people," Hickel wrote in the letter, which was leaked to the media.

Nixon fired Hickel shortly before Thanksgiving of 1970.

Hickel came back to Alaska, running for governor again in 1974, 1978, and 1986, losing all three times. He lost the first two races against Republican Jay Hammond, his political rival. Wohlforth, a former Anchorage Assemblyman, described their discord as two political philosophies at war over the future of Alaska.

Wohlforth said Hammond's philosophy was exemplified by the Alaska Permanent Fund, by what he called a more of a pessimistic approach to development and what should be done with oil money. Hammond essentially won, he said, with oil money being put away in the fund and the distribution of the annual dividends to all Alaskans.

"Whereas Hickel wanted that money to be invested in the future, in development and into building things and had this vision of sort of a great civilization in the north," Wohlforth said. "He wanted the money spent for things we have in common rather than things we have individually."


Hickel in recent years applauded the fund but advocated for a "community dividend" where at least half the amount set aside for individual dividends would be distributed to communities in order to help pay for roads, schools, clinics, and the like.


Hickel's return to the Governor's Mansion in 1990 was among the most unusual political episodes in Alaska political history. Arliss Sturgulewski was the Republican nominee for governor that year, and Jack Coghill the lieutenant governor nominee. Just weeks before the election, Coghill deserted Sturgulewski and joined Hickel for a last-minute run under the flag of the Alaskan Independence Party. The Hickel-Coghill team took office with 39 percent of the vote.

Hickel proposed megaprojects like the water pipeline to California and an undersea railroad to Siberia that drew criticism and didn't get off the ground. There were rocky times in Hickel's administration, particularly early on, and he feuded with Native groups, environmentalists and the Legislature.

But Stephen Haycox, an author and professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Hickel's achievements as governor included his administration's gigantic tax and royalty settlements with the oil industry. Companies agreed to pay the state nearly $4 billion in disputed back taxes and royalties, money that filled the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve fund.

"Which is a very significant legacy, not just because of the money or the reserve fund but because he forced the oil companies to acknowledge that they had a debt that they owed to Alaska," Haycox said.

Hickel, after leaving office, founded Institute of the North, an Anchorage-based organization that explores Alaska public policy. Hickel continued to promote his "owner state" philosophy of using the planet's commonly held resources for the good of all.

He remained active in debates, especially advocating the state build a natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Hickel supported Sarah Palin for governor, but later broke with her over the pipeline issue.

Hickel turned his business dealings over to his sons years ago. But, even at 90, he would come into his office at the Captain Cook every morning until the last couple of months to work on the issues that he cared about, said Roberts, his close aide.

Hickel's funeral will be Monday, May 17 at 5 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Anchorage. There will be an hour visitation beforehand. "The family wants the public to know that everyone's welcome," Roberts said.

Find Sean Cockerham online at or call him at 257-4344.

Funeral, open to the public, set for May 17


A funeral for Wally Hickel is planned for Monday, May 17, at 5 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Anchorage. The service will be preceded by an hour of visitation. The public is welcome.


Sean Cockerham

Sean Cockerham is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He also covered Alaska issues for McClatchy Newspapers based in Washington, D.C.