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Grace Schaible, first woman attorney general in Alaska, inspired generations

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 10, 2017

Steve Cowper knew exactly who he wanted to serve as Alaska attorney general after winning the race for governor in 1986, but Grace Berg Schaible had other ideas.

I mention this today because Schaible, 91, died Friday at her Fairbanks home along the Chena River, where she had been receiving hospice care for some time.

There are many things to say about her life — she was a great philanthropist, a fan of the opera and the arts, an expert at needlepoint, a woman who could not abide intolerance, a steadfast supporter of the University of Alaska, someone who loved to raise and show dogs, a Yale law graduate and the first woman to serve as attorney general in Alaska.

She was reluctant to take the state job 31 years ago. Back then, at age 61, Schaible had already announced her retirement, having completed a distinguished career in private practice.

She had been managing partner of the largest law firm in Fairbanks and had helped the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. navigate the complexities of the legal world during its early years. For years she spent about one week a month in Barrow and traveled widely on the North Slope. She said she always sought to avoid litigation, believing that "if you prepare documents properly, you're avoiding it."

Grace Berg Schaible at her 90th birthday party in 2015. (Diane Kaplan)

When the phone rang that November afternoon in 1986 at her Fairbanks home, she was listening, as she always did, to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on public radio.

But she wasn't wild about the Tchaikovsky piece, "The Queen of Spades," so she abandoned her normal practice of never allowing a phone call to interrupt the opera. It was the Cowper transition team again, asking her to join the Cabinet. Not interested, she said.

The next call came from Cowper.

"You're going to have to say no to my face," he said, setting the sit-down for the day after Thanksgiving.

He said he needed a mature person with a lot of experience to balance out the young people in his Cabinet. She translated this back to him as, "You just want the old broad from Fairbanks."

In an oral history interview conducted for the American Bar Association, she quoted Cowper as responding: "That's fine. You said it, I didn't."

Schaible promised to stay for the first half of Cowper's term, and she served for two years plus two weeks. Her public service also included time as a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, two periods as a trustee of the Alaska Permanent Fund and work on behalf of groups ranging from the Literacy Council of Alaska to the Girl Scouts.

Schaible's dedication to the University of Alaska began after Charles Bunnell, the first president of the institution, recruited her as a student in 1944. One of her contributions to the college was a gift of more than $1 million for the University of Alaska Museum of the North expansion project.

She was active in many community organizations throughout her life and became an expert on polar bear art, amassing what she believed might have been the largest collection in the world.

She donated more than 2,000 works of art to the UA museum, which has just opened an exhibit in Fairbanks of some of her hundreds of polar bear items — including photos, prints, sculptures, drawings, carvings, ornaments, glasses and collectibles.

Schaible traveled to the Arctic annually to see polar bears, animals that had captured her imagination as a child.

"I'm a northern person and I've always admired polar bears," she told an interviewer in 2006.

Grace Schaible, pictured in the 1940s, became a leader in Alaska law. (UAF Archives)

Her husband, Dr. Arthur Schaible, a Fairbanks surgeon, also admired polar bears, but enjoyed hunting them as well. During the early years of their marriage, when polar bear hunting was legal, he announced plans to go on a polar bear hunt.

She said that if he went, he could expect to come home to an empty house. You're joking, he said. Try me, she said. He didn't.

The surgeon even began to appreciate and agree with her point of view. Years later, they were walking on a street in Frankfurt when Arthur spotted a crystal polar bear in the window and announced he was going to start collecting polar bear art.

Until his death in 1980, she never had to think hard about what to get him for a gift.

"And so I bought every porcelain polar bear I could find," she said.

Asked about her accomplishments, Schaible said in that 2006 interview she could not think of "anything that is a major accomplishment," just "a lot of little things that I've enjoyed doing."

The little things added up to a life of major accomplishment.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at 

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