Politics

The untold story of Hillary Clinton's 1969 summer in Alaska

At the Democratic National Convention in July, former President Bill Clinton mentioned Alaska briefly in his speech introducing Hillary Clinton as the party's presidential nominee.

"… And then between college and law school on a total lark she went alone to Alaska and spent some time sliming fish," he said. He moved on in the next sentence of the speech, and it was the only mention of her time in Alaska. 

For decades, Alaskans have been kicking around versions of the same story: A young Hillary Rodham improbably placed in Alaska, elbow deep in fish guts.

Clinton herself has used the tale to salt her life story with a measure of earthy experience. In her 2003 biography "Living History," she told it in one paragraph: "I took off for a summer of working my way across Alaska, washing dishes at Mt. McKinley National Park … and sliming fish in Valdez in a temporary salmon factory on a pier."

But that's about all most people ever knew about the time the now-Democratic presidential nominee spent in Alaska. Though Clinton's highly examined life has spawned biographies from all corners of the political spectrum (more than a dozen at last count)  her trip north has remained an unprobed footnote. 

When Alaska Dispatch News reporters tried to learn more about the time the presidential nominee spent in Alaska, Clinton herself offered no new revelations. Campaign spokesperson Miryam Lipper said the candidate was not available to provide new or clarifying information for this story.

But records ADN unearthed  from 1969 reveal new details about what Hillary Rodham did in Alaska, and who she came here with. Still, the part Clinton talks about the most — the Valdez slime line —  is the part we know the least about.

Valdez, 1969

In the summer of 1969, 400,000 young people converged on Woodstock and the world watched Astronaut Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. Hillary Rodham was a new college graduate.

Valdez was a different world. "New" Valdez was in its infancy, nestled on the edge of the cloudy teal waters of Valdez Arm in Prince William Sound and crowned by the Chugach mountains. Just two years earlier, about 1,000 residents had moved the whole town 4 miles west following the disastrous 1964 earthquake. It would be several more years before construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the marine terminal would draw an army of workers to town.

In 1969, canneries sometimes put the young, seasonal workers up in primitive bunkhouses, fed them and offered access to the occasional shower that never quite washed off the fish smell. Often workers camped nearby. It wasn't uncommon for college kids to come up from the Lower 48 for the chance to make more than $60 a day. Some would work 12- to 16-hours shifts before heading back to school in the fall.

Hillary Rodham has said on many occasions she was one of those young seasonal workers.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, Hillary Clinton told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd over dinner about getting fired from her summer job "scooping the entrails of fish" at what she described as a Valdez fish processing plant  "when she complained about their unhealthy looking state."

"They were purple and black and yucky looking," she recalled. She questioned the owner about how long the fish had been dead, and he warned her to stop asking questions. But she continued asking questions, and was fired within a week.

She didn't care. "I found another job," she said coolly.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Valdez Museum does not have a copy of Clinton's "pink slip" from her supposed Valdez fish-processing firing, said curator Andrew Goldstein. Tourists, local residents and reporters have stopped by the museum for years with Hillary Clinton questions, he said.

Some of the details of Clinton's story about getting fired from a fish processing gig don't make much sense to locals.

In at least one telling of the story, at a 2015 town hall forum in New Hampshire, Clinton said the operation had disappeared when she showed up the next day to pick up her check. It's unlikely that an entire fish processing operation disappeared into the night, and improbable a company would do so as the result of complaints from a low-level temporary worker who had been fired.

Goldstein said he's looked at every copy of the Valdez newspaper from 1969, "and there is not one mention of a cannery closing, which one would assume would be a fairly big story for Valdez at the time."

Clinton described the fish as "salmon" in a "Today" show appearance from 2015 and in an Alaska radio interview earlier this year. But they may have been something else altogether.

Today, Valdez resident Chris Olson works in the museum annex building that stands on the spot where she once processed herring in the summer just a few years after Clinton came through the harbor town.

"When I worked here in '72, I was smacking herring. This is the most disgusting thing in your whole life," she said. "There was salt in these herring and they let 'em rot. Then they come down a conveyor belt and you grab the big fat ones and squeeze the eggs out."

Olson said that she, like Clinton, didn't last long in the job.

"Every kid in Alaska, up until the pipeline, made their money for college by working in the canneries," said Anchorage resident Kathleen "Teeny" Metcalfe. "It was awful work… cold, wet and stinky, and you were on your feet all day. I worked in a cannery in Ninilchik and I remember people fainting because they'd worked so long."

But it was good money, and there was a sense of camaraderie among the young people, even if it meant being "rained on all day long by rotten herring juice," she said.

Another element of Clinton's telling of her summer in Alaska centers on a road trip to Alaska. Bill Clinton described her as "alone" on the journey in his convention speech. But other accounts conflict.

Metcalfe remembers first hearing the story in 1994, when the president and first lady made a brief stopover in Anchorage on their way to the Philippines and spoke to an audience of Alaskans downtown. 

"Hillary got up and told a quick little speech and told everyone how she worked in Valdez" the summer after she graduated from college, Metcalfe said. Clinton spoke of handling a vehicle breakdown with a few friends — "it was either the muffler had fallen off or the carburetor," Metcalfe said.

"It was just such a mind-blower to me to think about her being the first lady and being on the way to the way to Valdez, underneath a car trying to fix it," Metcalfe said.

And it was "so odd to me that someone that was in the White House had worked in a cannery in Alaska," Metcalfe said.

There's a lot that remains unknown about the road trip to Alaska Clinton has described. It's not clear exactly what route she took, though she has mentioned driving the Alaska Highway, which she referred to as the "Alcan." We don't know whose car they drove, how many friends were along with her throughout the trip, or why they decided to travel to Alaska in the first place.

Jennifer Lyman grew up in Fairbanks and graduated from Wellesley in 1969 along with Clinton. Though everybody knew Hillary, a student government leader, they weren't close, she said. But Lyman did make a similar trip: A year earlier she and friends from Wellesley drove two Mercury Cougars from Detroit to Fairbanks on behalf of a Ford dealer. It's possible that news got around campus about their adventures, she said.

Constance Hoeck Shapiro, a close friend of Rodham and a Wellesley 1969 graduate, doesn't remember the future-candidate planning to go to Alaska.  

"I do not remember Hillary even making plans for her Alaska trip – her roommate was getting married right after our graduation, one friend was going to live with her parents in Caracas that summer, my roommate was heading to South America, the Vietnam War was raging, and many of us had to save up money for grad school expenses, so we had summer jobs planned," Hoeck Shapiro wrote in an email. Knowing how conservative Rodham's father was, "I'm surprised he didn't object to her plans," she wrote.

Work at Mt. McKinley Park Hotel

Some details of Hillary Rodham's summer in Alaska can be verified.

In records ADN found and a published account from 2002,  Hillary Rodham traveled to Alaska with a Wellesley classmate named Sandi Servaas. A employee list from the Mt. McKinley Park Hotel lists both Hillary Rodham and Servaas among the 42 employees who worked there in 1969.

Rodham listed her address as her parents' house in Park Ridge, Illinois.

Jack Wesley, now a retired judge in Vermont, had traveled to Alaska during one of his undergraduate summers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He worked as a busboy at the hotel that summer too.

"Sometime in late July or early August, our dishwashers quit," Wesley said. "Two college girls trekking through Alaska got hired to take the dishwashing jobs."

One of them was Hillary Rodham.

Rodham wasn't just any 21-year-old recent grad when she traveled to Alaska. She had been the first student graduation speaker at the all-female Wellesley College. Her speech made enough of an impact — and caused enough controversy —  to land her in the June 20, 1969, issue of Life Magazine.

Soon after the two dishwashers arrived, a copy of the Life magazine featuring Rodham made its way around the employee dorm. So people knew that one of the new dishwashers had "made a bit of a splash," Wesley said.

Otherwise, Rodham "was just one of the crew," Wesley  said. "Of course, as things turned out, she was destined for bigger splashes."

Wesley and Rodham briefly kept in touch. In the spring of 1970 they met up once in New Haven. He has a picture from the day, of Clinton wearing a headscarf, eyeglasses and jeans, talking on the phone. They fell out of touch.

The other Denali dishwasher was Sandra Servaas, known as Sandi, the Wellesley class of 1969's lone geology major, with a double major in chemistry. She was from Indianapolis, and her extended family owned the Saturday Evening Post. Former classmates said she never mentioned her family's publishing ties. Friends knew her as whip-smart and funny.

"She was a complete blast — forever playing jokes on dorm mates," Hoeck Shapiro said.

A road trip to Alaska would have been an adventurous undertaking. In those days, getting to Denali required either a train trip or a rough ride over the Denali Highway, which was then 170 miles of rough, gravel road from Paxson. The 83-room McKinley Park Hotel was the only place to stay inside the national park. Guests usually took the train up from Anchorage. They woke for 3 a.m."wildlife tours" that included a hearty breakfast, according to National Park Service archives.

Ford Reeves, who worked that summer at the hotel as a bellhop and still lives in the Denali area, does not directly remember Rodham, like several other 1969 park hotel employees contacted for this story. But he remembers the legend of her being there.

Reeves was studying at the University of California Santa Barbara and came up for the summer after a friend impressed him with a slideshow of pictures from the park. At the time, the gigs attracted a mix of hippie-leaning college students looking for adventure and fun, along with Alaskans just looking for work, he said.

Workers at the hotel were paid a couple dollars an hour, Reeves said. Staff lodged in dormitories and patronized a bar called the Bottom of the Barrel, which was under the hotel building, and went camping on the weekends.

Denali in 1969 was not a place that attracted many women, said Wally Cole, who managed the hotel for a few summers but wasn't there the summer Rodham and Servaas were on the payroll. "They weren't seasonal rangers, they didn't shovel gravel."

How long did Rodham and Servaas stay? Did they travel with anyone else? Clinton has usually spoken of  traveling Alaska with multiple friends. ADN could not confirm any other travelers in the group.

Paths diverge

After the summer, Servaas and Rodham's paths diverged.

Rodham went off to Yale Law School. Over the next year she worked on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action, with abused children and in legal aid, doing research on  migratory labor and on a senate campaign in Connecticut. Servaas headed off to Japan, where she taught English and earned a black belt in judo.

When she returned home, she worked for a time as an editor at Holiday magazine before joining the staff of a historical preservation organization now known as Indiana Landmarks, said executive director Tina Connor.

People remember Servaas as a singular presence: She played competitive squash, drove a red convertible and restored a historic house on her own.

In September 1975, Servaas was visiting an aunt and uncle in Vista, California, north of San Diego. A few days after she arrived, Servaas' aunt and uncle arrived home from dinner and found their niece dead, the victim of a homicide. A 1975 Associated Press article said her uncle found her beaten to death with a blunt object. In 2002 the Servaas-family-owned Saturday Evening Post said she was "ambushed in the foyer with a crowbar and pickax," in an article announcing a scholarship in her name. 

Over the years, investigators from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department interviewed suspects, compared fingerprints and took DNA swabs. But no on has ever been arrested. The case remains open and unsolved today, said  Lt. Kenneth Nelson.

At the time, Hillary Rodham was living in Arkansas. A month later she would marry Bill Clinton. It's not clear whether Servaas and Rodham were in touch in the years after their time in Alaska. No records of Clinton speaking or writing publicly about Sandi Servaas could be found for this article.

But Servaas' mother Jean once mentioned she'd received a note from Clinton after Sandi's death, said Tina Connor of Indiana Landmarks. Connor worked closely with Jean Servaas over the years to administer an annual historical preservation award given in her only child's name.

Sandi's relative Joan Servaas, the current publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, said she ran into Hillary Clinton at a fundraiser in 2008."She came up to me at the table and asked about Sandi, and asked if they ever found the people who killed her," Servaas said.

Memorable experience

What impact did the summer in Alaska have on Clinton? That too, is hard to ascertain. She has called her time in Alaska the most memorable wilderness experience of her life.

For some of her former co-workers at the Mt. McKinley Park Hotel, the summer of 1969 was a pivotal time in their young lives.  

Nearly 50 years later, Wesley, the retired judge, said working at Denali with a like-minded group of young people was  "something to feed restless young hearts uncertain where the world would propel them next in the perilous days at the end of the Sixties."

Those lives were propelled in many different directions. Other Mt. McKinley Park Hotel alumni went on to become everything from corporate attorneys to university regents to wildlife photographers.

For the most part, they are now doing the kinds of things people do in their late 60s: traveling, spending time with grandchildren, and winding down careers.

Except for one.

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