Opinions

One question haunted this Anchorage municipality founder. Here’s how he answered it.

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When Jack Roderick approached me to edit the memoirs he had been working on for many years, I knew I would learn some great stories about one of Anchorage’s founders. But I didn’t know I would learn so much about life from this beloved, dying man.

Jack passed away almost two years ago. His pandemic-delayed memorial service will be held later this week. We both knew he might not survive to see his book finished, and my editing job was only half done when he departed. But he liked what he got to see.

I recall, first, his warm but enigmatic smile. Along with his deep voice, athletic build and sincere caring, that smile drew friends and supporters to Jack. But the smile also seemed to hold a question.

Now I know what that question was. I read almost 1,000 pages about it.

Before I read the most personal part of his book, however, Jack asked me to work with the story of his service as the last mayor of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough.

That legacy is important, because it is reflected all over the city today. Jack founded the community councils and the People Mover bus system, and he advanced the first real planning for most of the area, amid the explosion of growth that spilled across the Anchorage Bowl during the boom years of trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction.

As mayor, Jack helped merge the borough with the city to create a single municipality. Residents benefit today with unified elections and leadership, reduced duplication and waste, and rational allocation of resources across the city.

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In 1975, Jack lost an election to become mayor of that new unified government. But he stayed involved, often behind the scenes. He was a confidential adviser to many important people, including the liberal newspaper publisher Kay Fanning, and Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who had once been his office partner and drinking buddy.

Jack was one of the few people who knew Stevens well enough to challenge him directly over ethical concerns after Stevens had become one of the nation’s most powerful politicians. Their private correspondence, in which Jack expressed his disappointment, is a model of how true friends can remain honest in tough times without losing the strand of their affection.

I thought I knew Jack’s story before I read the pages. I had helped him with his personal history of the Alaska oil industry, the now-classic “Crude Dreams,” when I was still in my 20s, and he had helped me innumerable times since, especially when I ran for office in the 1990s.

But I knew a lot less about my friend than I realized.

It turned out Jack’s memoir was less a story told to others than his own quest for an answer. He needed one before his life could end.

Jack made it to 94, healthy, wealthy and wise, with a wonderful family, surrounded by friends and admirers. But internally, he still heard from discordant voices — call them survivor’s guilt and imposter syndrome — demanding to know why.

That was the question behind his smile. Why am I so lucky?

Jack had come to Alaska in 1954, exactly the right moment. He started out as a truck driver, but got into the oil industry at the ground floor, before the first big discovery, and made his fortune. And on the way, he met his wife Martha, a brilliant, charming woman who helped create Anchorage by his side, on the school board and in many other roles. Lucky.

Jack had survived a plane crash in Seattle soon after Christmas, 1948, with a group of Yale University students he was leading. Eleven classmates and the three-member flight crew were killed. Jack was one of only three on board to survive uninjured. Some of the parents irrationally blamed him, increasing his sense of guilt for surviving.

He was amazingly lucky to even be at Yale. He never applied. As a student in Seattle during World War II, he had enlisted in the Navy Air Corps and was sent to Yale for pilot training. The war ended before he could fight, but he got to stay at Yale.

And at Yale he was a star. He played wide receiver for a nearly undefeated football team and was lauded in the press as one of the best in the nation. He turned down going pro, but got to know future president George H. W. Bush, songwriter Cole Porter, and many other remarkable people.

But Jack’s good luck went far deeper than all that. He had survived being raised and abandoned by a father whose trauma from serving in World War I he imposed upon his children, and whose alcoholism was ultimately fatal. When Jack was a boy, his father tried to drown him. At a young age, he heard terrible stories of men blown up by grenades, and his father’s obsession with having killed a man with a bayonet during hand-to-hand combat along a road in France.

These memories came to me in pages Jack had worried over for many years, with lists of old songs, scenes from plays he had written, investigations of the similarity of football and bayonet combat, quotes from family letters and from books about war, alcoholism and fathers, and his own clear and thoughtful stories, often funny and vivid — all wrapped up like a ball of yarn, 941 pages of it, out of order and full of repetition and unanswered questions. Just reading it and sorting out the pieces took months.

When I was done, we had a book, and Jack was gone. And, it seemed, the book could close before it had ever really opened. In fact, Jack hadn’t particularly wanted me to edit his memoir, other than the borough mayor part. He had been urged to contact me by his daughter, Libby.

Jack was already done with the book. He had his answer and didn’t care if anyone else read else ever read it.

I hope more do, however, because I learned a lot.

I learned that it’s never too late to work through our tangled hearts.

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And that sometimes people are lucky just because they deserve it.

A hybrid in-person and online celebration of life will be held for Jack Roderick by his family on Saturday, Oct. 22. For information, contact Molly Brown at mossrossboss@gmail.com.

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.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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.

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