How Lowell Thomas Jr. escaped his name to become a great pilot, model Alaskan

In his day, Lowell Thomas Jr. was among the most famous of living Alaskans, but that didn't always sit well with him. A gentle and humble man, he preferred to be in the mountains.

Thomas died Saturday just short of his 93rd birthday. His life had been adventurous and he made major contributions to Alaska, but his personal story was about escaping the shadow of an illustrious father.

Lowell Thomas Sr. held tight to fame through most of the 20th century, beginning with his work as a correspondent in World War I, when he traveled with Col. T.E. Lawrence and created the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. For decades he produced scores of books, radio and television shows, films and lectures, in a constant whirlwind of self-promotion.

His son followed in his footsteps at first. In 1949, the father and son walked into Tibet, the first journalists to document the Himalayan land. Lowell Thomas Jr.'s book on the journey was a best-seller and he made a popular film.

But his father was never easily satisfied. A friend told me when Lowell Jr. called to say he was elected lieutenant governor of Alaska, in 1974, his father asked, "Why not governor?"

By that time, however, Lowell Jr. had made his own name as a pilot.

[Lowell Thomas Jr., former Alaska lieutenant governor, dead at 92]


Thomas became fascinated with aviation as a student and left Dartmouth College to join the Army Air Corps during World War II. Due to illness he didn't see combat, serving instead as a flight instructor.

"It was his own thing, because his father didn't fly," said Thomas' daughter, Anne Donaghy. "He found that, and he loved it, and it was his own thing right from the start."

Thomas' wife, Tay, also came from a privileged family — her father was a top executive with Pan American Airlines — and in 1954 the couple began producing National Geographic articles and books together. The first book told the story of their journey in a Cessna 180 from France, across Africa, the Middle East, and through Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The plane, bought straight from the factory, is still in the family.)

In 1958, the couple took an assignment to make a film about flying in Alaska for Thomas Sr.'s TV show, "High Adventure." Lowell, Tay and Anne, a toddler, met Merrill Wien, also a legendary Alaska aviator, and flew to the Juneau Ice Field. They spent two months filming on glaciers, an experience Tay turned into another book.

Wien said Lowell already knew Alaska — he had climbed Mount Logan with Bradford Washburn — but glacier flying convinced him this was where he wanted to live.

"After the trip to Alaska in 1958, and flying all over the mountains up there, he really became enamored of Alaska mountains and glaciers," Wien said.

Over the decades, Thomas and his turbocharged Helio Courier airplane, designed for short take-offs and landings, put many mountaineers on glaciers, most often on Denali. Thomas himself loved ski mountaineering and often took friends to the Tordrillo Mountains to climb on the low-tech alpine skis of the 1960s.

Donaghy said Thomas did most of his mountain flying for the fun of it, without compensation, supporting climbers and taking visitors from Camp Denali, in the national park, to land on the mountain. Eventually he bought Talkeetna Air Taxi, but he didn't like the business side of flying.

His many rescues of climbers on Denali gained respect in the aviation community, especially a daring landing at 14,200 feet. But he never crashed a plane.

"High-altitude mountain flying is very risky, because the engine doesn't put out very much power and the air is thin," Wien said. "He was an outstanding pilot. And the proof of that is no accidents with all the hairy stuff he did."

Donaghy said Thomas' fame helped him run for Congress soon after he arrived in Alaska. After two tries, it looked like he could win with a third run, but by then he loved Alaska too much to leave and serve in Washington, D.C. He ran instead for the state Senate, representing Spenard for 12 years.

Clem Tillion, also a senator in those days, said Thomas' image held true in his work as a politician.

"Even in the Legislature he was known as 'Dudley Do-Right,' " Tillion said. "He was always on the good side. The man was scrupulously honest."

Although a Republican, Thomas became deeply concerned with conservation. (He quit the party late in his life.) Among his most lasting legislative contributions, he sponsored the bill that created Chugach State Park.

While working to outlaw aerial hunting of wolves, Thomas brought Charles Lindbergh, a family friend, to speak on the issue to the Alaska Legislature. Afterward they went for a spin in the Helio Courier, with Lindbergh in the right-hand seat.

In 1974, Jay Hammond, planning an unlikely campaign for governor on a pro-conservation platform, recruited Thomas to help his ticket as lieutenant governor. Tillion said Thomas' popularity gave Hammond credibility and opened doors with contributors and media.

"Lowell Thomas gave us Jay Hammond as governor, and for that I will be forever grateful," Tillion said. But Thomas didn't really want to serve and was happy to step aside after the first term. "He had no interest in being bound behind a desk. He wanted to go off flying."


Lowell and Tay Thomas used their wealth to benefit many charitable causes, for conservation, their church, poverty and an independent living center for elders. They helped start the Nordic skiing program at Alaska Pacific University with a $1 million contribution. The ski training center on Eagle Glacier near Girdwood is named for them.

My own memories of Lowell Thomas go back to childhood. They begin with a sense of awe. Even as a youngster, I saw the family was local royalty.

But when I knew him better, I realized Lowell Thomas was much more than his name. Always warm and interested in others, never boastful, and yet extraordinarily skilled and self-reliant, he was what he made himself: a model citizen of Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.