Longtime former Alaska lawmaker Jay Kerttula dies at age 92

Jalmar “Jay” Kerttula, who was Alaska House speaker and Senate president during his long legislative career, has died. He was 92.

Kerttula died Friday in Juneau, according to a statement released Tuesday by his daughter, Beth Kerttula. Beth Kerttula, herself a former state legislator, told The Associated Press she was influenced “all the time, every day” by the examples set by her father and mother, Joyce, who died in 2015. Joyce Kerttula became an “unpaid volunteer” in her husband’s office after finding unanswered letters in a drawer, according to the statement.

Jay Kerttula, a Palmer Democrat, served more than 30 years between the state House and Senate, beginning in 1961. With the exception of the third Legislature, which ran from 1963-1964, he served continuously until losing his reelection bid in 1994.

“He began his political career when Alaska had little funding, but a lot of hope,” the statement reads, adding he and other leaders were able to put aside partisan politics and “focus on issues.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who is also from Mat-Su, said Kerttula was the longest serving member in the history of the Legislature and called him a leader and advocate for the region who “served the entire state with honor." The governor ordered Alaska state flags flown at half-staff sunrise to sunset Friday to honor him.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, in a social media post said Jay Kerttula “dedicated his life to public service and played a pivotal role in creating the state we live in today. Jay will be sorely missed by many, and his name will never be forgotten in Alaska history.”

During his time in the Legislature, Kerttula participated in decisions that helped shape what the state would become including education and health care, Pioneer Homes, the Alaska Marine Highway, purchase of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government, antitrust law, energy funding, and fisheries management, according to the family statement.

Kerttula moved with his family to the Matanuska Farm Colony when he was about 6, according to his daughter. His mother was the daughter of a Finnish immigrant family. His father served in both world wars. Kerttula returned to his own dairy farm after losing election and became director of the state Division of Agriculture.

Beth Kerttula said her father belonged to a different generation of politicians.

During the 1978 governor’s race with Republican opponent Jay Hammond, the two men shared remedies for the bad backs both suffered from spending too many hours in small planes, her statement said. Kerttula played chess with the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens during the early days of the Legislature, passing a magnetic board back and forth during long House sessions when Kerttula served as minority leader and Stevens presided over the body. The two remained lifelong friends.

Beth Kerttula remembered a woman who said her family arrived in Palmer with nothing but Jay Kerttula got them through the winter with a 50-pound bag of potatoes and half a moose.

“That woman ... sat in my office and cried,” Beth Kerttula said. “And that was not unusual.”

Jay Kerttula was living in Juneau, in his own apartment, to be closer to family.

Survivors include his daughters Beth Kerttula and Anna Kerttula de Echave. No immediate plans for a memorial were announced.

Reporting by the Associated Press in Juneau and ADN’s Zaz Hollander in the Mat-Su.