EDITORIAL: The last gift Vic Fischer gave Alaska

A week ago, Alaska’s last direct, living connection to its constitution was finally lost. Vic Fischer, 99 when he died, lived an extraordinary life — one in which the fight for statehood was an early chapter. Having grown up in Germany and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s before immigrating to the U.S. and fighting in World War II, he arrived in Alaska in 1950 and spent the next 73 years here, always active in civic life and making the most of the many years he spent in the Last Frontier.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, there’s a good chance Fischer did work that impacted your life for the better. As a city planner, he helped ensure the Delaney Park Strip remained undeveloped, a tremendous asset for Anchorage’s downtown (and, fittingly, the site of the giant celebration bonfire when Alaska finally won statehood). He helped set aside land for Westchester Lagoon and the Chester Creek greenbelt, where thousands of residents and visitors recreate and commute every day. It’s a defining, connecting trail feature that helps remind us all that Anchorage is part of Alaska’s wilderness (tired jokes notwithstanding), and that wilderness is at the heart of what makes this place special. Fischer even helped plan the towns of Cantwell and Tok, small communities with outsized roles in providing services in some of the more remote stretches of Interior Alaska.

And, of course, Fischer was instrumental to Alaska history for his role in drafting our state’s constitution, one of 55 delegates who met at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks during the winter of 1955-1956 and hammered out what is widely regarded as one of the best, strongest founding documents of any U.S. state.

Vic Fischer wasn’t only the last Alaska constitutional delegate, he was the last living constitutional delegate of any state in the country. Here in Alaska, we tend to look forward more than we look back, but upon Fischer’s passing, it’s appropriate to reflect for a moment on the significance of this moment. Until this week, it was possible for those with questions about what the state’s framers intended when drafting the Alaska Constitution to not only look up recordings and minutes from the statehood convention, but also to call up Fischer (or, until a few years ago, his fellow delegate Jack Coghill or chief convention clerk Katie Hurley) and actually ask them. Having that connection to our history was unique for Alaska, and we’re going to miss it.

Fischer and other major figures in the Alaska political landscape laid the foundation for Alaska as a state and set up a framework whereby it could succeed, not just exist as a protectorate of the federal government or a resource colony. For the first half-century after attaining statehood, much could have gone wrong that would have left Alaska less able to govern its own affairs. It was the foresight of Fischer and the constitutional framers that resulted in a document that was flexible enough to deal capably with unexpected events like the discovery of massive oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay. That work was coupled with fierce advocacy in Congress from figures such as Bob Bartlett and Ted Stevens, who were able to convince, persuade and sometimes browbeat their colleagues from other states that Alaska needed help “catching up” to other longer-tenured states in terms of infrastructure. That effort continues today.

If the list of Fischer’s accomplishments looks daunting, however, he would be the first to tell you not to believe any such thing. Although Fischer was an intelligent, capable and unfailingly kind man, his success had more to do with his continual, dedicated civic engagement than any natural gift he was born with (except possibly his eternal optimism, which is a beneficial quality when dealing with the frustrations of politics).

There is a profound lesson in his ordinariness. We rightly tend to lionize our heroes of the past, imagining them as a larger-than-life species long extinct. Vic Fischer’s life teaches us that the opposite is true. The men and women who built this state were ordinary people just like us. They went to work every day, cared about their families and did the best they could in tough circumstances. They struggled and had successes and failures — and yet they rose to try and answer big questions and solve big problems when asked. They were no different than we are today, and just like them, we can rise and try to answer the big questions and solve the big problems of our time.

Vic Fischer didn’t accomplish a lot because he was the smartest guy in the room, though he was certainly the smartest guy in many of the rooms he occupied — he accomplished a lot because for nearly a century, he showed up to do the work. And that work took all forms — passing laws as a legislator, organizing friendship and aid missions to the Russian Far East, even passing out programs and helping folks to their seats as an usher at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. He didn’t treat any sort of work as beneath his station, and he recognized that all of it was worthwhile in making Alaska a better place. And that, ultimately, is the last and most important gift Vic Fischer gave us: The life lesson that extraordinary things are possible for us and for the place where we live, no matter who we are — if we just have the dedication to work toward them and never stop.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.