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Michael Cowper was an inspirational leader as Alaska's first lady

  • Author: David Ramseur
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 28, 2015

Just three days after Steve Cowper's decisive win in Alaska's 1986 Democratic primary election for governor, he got more good news. His wife Michael gave birth to their son, Wade.

The cowboy-boot-wearing Fairbanksan was known in Alaska's political circles as the "High Plains Drifter" after Clint Eastwood's aloof hero in the 1973 western. So Cowper's campaign was keenly aware of its need to broaden their candidate's appeal.

As Cowper's campaign media aide, I pushed the new parents to milk their family addition for all it was worth. The 33-year-old Michael was an easy sale.

Still in her hospital bed, she dabbed on some makeup, brushed her hair and posed for the TV cameras with her hours-old son and exhausted husband. The media ate it up.

That was Alaska's first big public introduction to Michael Margaret Stewart Cowper. After her husband won the governor's race four months later, Alaskans came to embrace Michael as the state's First Lady.

This Oct. 22, Michael died of ovarian cancer at age 62 in Santa Barbara, California, where she had lived much of her life. She and Cowper divorced in 1991, not long after he left the governor's office.

As Cowper's press secretary and travel aide during his four years as governor, I came to know Michael as compassionate, savvy and enthusiastic. She willingly took on the often burdensome social obligations of retail politics for which her husband had limited tolerance. She also left a lasting legacy in women's health care and early education.

Michael's father was an Air Force colonel serving as a military attaché to NATO when she was born in Paris. Her unusual first name came from a family friend; Margaret came from her mother who died of cancer earlier in her life.

After her dad retired, the family returned to Santa Barbara to help manage their orchid farm business. Michael's dad and stepmother lived in an exclusive suburb populated by friends of Ronald Reagan and assorted movie stars.

But she struck out on her own, graduating from law school at age 31 and joining a family law practice. She met and married Cowper as he was gearing up for his second run for governor.

As oil prices dropped to single digits and her husband was focused on helping Alaska recover from one of its most severe economic crises, Michael plunged into her role as First Lady with boundless energy.

With a third of Alaska's population under age 18, she encouraged creation of a Commission on Children and Youth to focus on issues such as child care, teen suicide and substance abuse. Even with Alaska's budget crisis, the Cowper administration persuaded the Legislature to approve millions in new funds for youth programs.

Michael was especially affected by her travel to rural Alaska, where she witnessed enormous social and economic challenges. To address those, the administration created a Health Care Commission which offered nearly 50 policy recommendations and pushed for educational accountability.

In 1989, Michael launched her signature initiative, "Look to a Book," a literacy campaign to encourage young children to read. Instead of public dollars, she persuaded private companies to finance it with donations. She donated sets of books to all of Alaska's 383 elementary schools and traveled the state to read to young students in scores of schools.

For those efforts, Michael was honored with a State Reading Association Literacy Award. A video the campaign produced won a national Children's Television Network award.

Michael also was a charismatic goodwill ambassador for Alaska, accompanying her husband on trade missions to Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and the newly opening Soviet Union. She was as unaffected and gracious with presidents and ambassadors as with a young student leaving her village for the first time to visit the State Capitol.

Partway through her husband's term, Michael underwent a double-mastectomy to prevent the kind of cancer that killed her mother. That well-publicized act inspired Alaska women to focus on their own health care.

Michael's proudest legacy is her successful son, a California lawyer at an equal justice nonprofit. Alaskans can be proud that our state is a better place because of Michael's inspirational service as our First Lady.

David Ramseur was Gov. Steve Cowper's press secretary and is currently a visiting scholar in public policy at UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research where he is writing a book on Alaska-Russian relations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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