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Alaska political foes learned their craft as joint ‘gods’ of an imaginary world

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 9, 2018
  • Published December 9, 2018

A Steller Secondary School yearbook page from 1978 shows, from left, Mark Begich, Tuckerman Babcock, Carl Guess, Lloyd Kurtz, Eric Troyer, and Tom Begich; Charles Wohlforth is in front. (Steller yearbook 1978)

Before the election, my old friend Tuckerman Babcock posted a photo of us in high school with five other friends, including Mark and Tom Begich. A few weeks later, Tuckerman was incoming chief of staff for the governor who beat Mark in the election and Tom was state Senate minority leader.

Each remains my friend, despite public conflicts. Political adversaries can still respect and like one another.

In the 40-year-old photograph, we’re teenagers wearing arrogant expressions, sport coats and matching T-shirts with our volleyball team’s name: The Suits. I don’t think we were particularly good, but we were undefeated, winning on pure ego. We played in dress clothes.

Steller Secondary, our loose, creative, progressive school in Anchorage, allowed such oddness, and much more. Unstructured time taught students to think and learn for themselves.

As students, Babcock and Tom Begich created an imaginary world of international and electoral politics called Vhem, in which our friends each had countries and political parties. Babcock was god of the eastern continent and Begich of the west (Mark Begich was not involved).

They taught the world of Vhem as a class for other students. My Anchorage School District transcript listed credits of “Vhem.”

We created political and military strategies for our countries and wrote detailed histories. On Election Isle, adversaries controlled political parties vying for power. Dice rolls decided the elections, followed by inter-party negotiations to form coalitions.

“That was not fanciful, childlike stuff. We were reading magazines and newspapers and we were replaying what we were seeing,” said Lloyd Kurtz, fourth from the left in the photo and a peacemaker for Babcock and Begich. “These guys were rehearsing what was going to come later.”

After college, Kurtz went into finance and helped pioneer the field of socially responsible investing, including creation in 1990 of an index that tracks those securities. Now in California, he heads that business for Wells Fargo Private Bank nationally.

“It’s odd how much we learned without all that much formal class time,” he said. “That school was deeply subversive — this idea that people can figure things out for themselves. Maybe too subversive for mainstream education.”

Steller still exists 40 years later. I was involved until recently as my own children went through. It’s still a terrific program but far more structured and traditional.

Carl Guess points out another factor in our group’s development. (He is third from the left in the photo.)

“Vhem is probably the output of hanging out with a bunch of grown-ups who were doing the same thing,” Guess said. “Our parents were lining out what a functional Alaska democracy was going to be and they were starting from scratch.”

Guess’ father, Gene, had been speaker of the Alaska House and a key figure in managing the arrival of big oil. The Begiches’ father, Nick, had worked on those issues representing Alaska in Congress. My father, Eric, did so as Alaska’s commissioner of revenue.

Carl Guess today lives in Seattle, where he has had a successful business writing and consulting career and now coaches executives in public speaking. His sister Gretchen was an Alaska state senator.

Each person in the photo became a freelancer, founder or leader.

“Being self-directed really bled through in the rest of my life and has been part of my whole makeup since then,” said Eric Troyer (fifth from the left). “I never really had a time when I felt like I needed to have someone to tell me what to do.”

Troyer today lives in Fairbanks, where he is a leader in the trail and outdoor community. He developed diverse talents in life, as a writer and journalist, a cartoonist and a musician, and as a full-time dad.

The freedom of Steller shaped me, too (I’m kneeling in the photo). As an author, every project is like an independent study from school days. I also learned from remarkable friends and terrific parents. My mother, Caroline, was a founder of Steller.

Babcock and I were president and vice president in a meaningless student government we created for the pleasure of having elections. When he graduated, I became president (I was a few years younger than the others in the photo, but at Steller ages mixed).

We also wrestled and smashed into one another. I dislocated Babcock’s shoulder and he gave me a concussion, all in fun.

My presidency ended at the end-of-school picnic my senior year, when I was kidnapped, blindfolded and thrown into a car. Juniors wearing crazy military uniforms imprisoned me in the school kitchen until I signed over my presidential powers.

Their successful military coup established a ruling junta that held student government for a couple of years.

And then we all diverged in our paths.

Former Anchorage mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (on the far left, with the disco hair), always the most serious of the group, focused early on business and managing his widowed mother’s apartments to support his siblings. He got into real-life politics while the rest of us were still in college.

State Sen. Tom Begich (far right), D-Anchorage, Mark’s older brother, has had a diverse career as a consultant, facilitator and trainer all over the U.S. and abroad. He is also a successful singer-songwriter.

Babcock (second from left) was chair of the Alaska Republican Party before becoming Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff. He came from a liberal family — an interesting, adventurous, complex family but not an affluent one. He evolved into a conservative and devout Christian through college and an early marriage.

Babcock and Tom Begich’s incredible political minds sparred for three decades over Alaska’s election district reapportionment battles. Along the way, their friendship died.

But neither has changed entirely. The last time I spoke to Begich, he was trying to organize the Senate, just as on Vhem’s Election Isle. And when I saw Babcock on Election Night, he was scribbling long lists of numbers on a lined pad, exactly as he did when keeping track of the dice rolls with Begich.

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