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Ermalee Hickel: ‘Beautiful as a butterfly, tough as a boot’

  • Author: Shannyn Moore
  • Updated: September 20
  • Published September 16

Ermalee Hickel, center, greets visitors including former Gov. Tony Knowles, right, and wife Susan, before the funeral Mass for Gov. Wally Hickel on May 17, 2010, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in West Anchorage. (Erik Hill / ADN archive 2010)

Alaska lost one of its brightest lights this past week. Ermalee Hickel passed away, surrounded by family and at peace. Such a beautiful life lived, it made sense her exit from this realm was exactly how she wanted.

If you ever had the chance to spend time with Mrs. Hickel, count yourself blessed beyond belief. She was magic. She made the people around her want to be better people. Her grace was unmatched.

Her husband, Wally, described her lovingly as "beautiful as a butterfly, but tough as a boot." Being a lady, as well as our first lady, didn't mean she was weak, clearly the opposite. She was a rock for her family, friends, church and Alaska.

Growing up in Alaska exposed me to some remarkable women. I am sure there are remarkable women in other places, and I would have met them if I'd lived somewhere else.

Libby Riddles, the champion musher, contended and won the Iditarod in 1985, until then considered a man's sport. Susan Butcher followed her and dominated, winning four of the next five races. The two of them inspired a bumper sticker. "Alaska: Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."

Diana Tillion, brilliant artist, mother, wife, homesteader and soul of Halibut Cove. Her friend, Bella Hammond, wife to Gov. Jay Hammond and the kind of woman who could shoot a bear in her living room and seem sweet about it.

Ermalee Hickel in an undated file photo. (Anchorage Times Archive)

Katie Hurley was Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening's assistant and then chief clerk during the state's Constitutional Convention. Any questions about how our Constitution was created, she knows — and took notes.

Mary Epperson who founded all that is good and decent about Homer. And Ermalee Hickel. When Sarah Palin crashed Wally's funeral, I defended their family. Ermalee thanked me.

I don't know how many of these women ever self identified as feminists, but I do. I suppose the definition is that I consider women to be people too.

Many of my female idols spent, or are spending, their whole lives supporting men in powerful positions. This never seemed lost on the men they married. It was treasured, touted and taken care of.

In an RIP post for Mrs. Hickel's life, one woman wrote, "Just my kind of person — an old fashioned lady. I wished they would come back into fashion."

I agree with the sentiment, but living the sort of life she lived wasn't a fashion statement. It wasn't feminism, it was humanism.

We are so lucky to have shared this time and this place with her. She is to be buried next to her husband, standing. Side by side again. To the Hickel family, much love, and thank you for sharing your parents with us.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

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@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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