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Remembering man of many hats who profoundly shaped Alaska

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published June 28, 2014

By the time he succumbed Wednesday to double pneumonia, Walt Parker had been out of the public eye for a long time. He still showed up at meetings and hearings -- the fire still alight in his eyes -- but you might have mistaken him for an old-timer sidelined and out of touch.

You'd have been wrong.

Walt Parker lived the kind of mythic life we all imagine possible in Alaska, staying sharp and involved all the way to the end. He would have been 88 on August 11. Instead, his family will be holding a celebration of life that day.

He was a musher, a trapper, a bush pilot, a scholar, a planner, a borough assemblyman, a consultant who worked all over the world on transportation and communications projects. He was a polymath who could have as easily served as Commissioner of Highways or President of the University of Alaska. Gov. Jay Hammond made him the former but should have made him the latter. He played Horatio in local productions of Hamlet. He medaled regularly in his age group in cross-country ski races. Every summer, he climbed each of the major peaks in the Chugach Range that are visible from Anchorage (after being essential in the creation of Chugach State Park). For 60 years he bred a line of classic Alaska sled dogs that were part husky, part Malamute, part Samoyed, and all beautiful.

He fought a thousand battles for stronger communities, higher education, parks and trails, safer transportation, better communications and politics that made sense. He took on oil companies and agency bureaucrats and academic politics and foreign governments -- and most of the time he won because he had more conviction and common sense than all of them. To Walt, nothing was impossible, or even improbable.

He hearkened to a time when -- flush with statehood and the promise of resource revenues -- Alaskans insisted we would do things better here. We would avoid the urban decay and environmental disasters of Outside. We would build smarter, more connected communities because we knew each other first-hand, and because we were committed to education, live-and-let-live tolerance and small-d democratic values. We would use unimaginable oil wealth to out-Norway the Scandinavians, because we'd been aspiring to that since long before our young state had two nickels to rub together.

There was both hubris and excitement in the mix of passion, idealism, freedom and energy that coalesced in Walt Parker's generation in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Somehow it seemed to slip away like sand through our fingers when the oil money finally arrived in the late '70s. But Walt and his generation -- Jay Hammond, Bill Egan, Walter Hickel, Arliss Sturgulewski, Vic Fischer, Ted Stevens and many more -- never lost their commitment or faith in better things ahead. In a mostly-Democratic young state they argued the partisan battles of the day, but still made it seem like being Alaskan was more important than being Republican or Democratic.

Northern Journey

Walt came to Alaska as an impossibly young man soon after World War II. He had lied about his age to get into the war, then come home to marry a sophisticated young San Francisco woman and haul her off to the Alaska wilderness.

Wilderness it was. First Fairbanks, where he worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, moonlighted at the News-Miner and took university classes rather than sleep. In 1948 the CAA sent him to operate a weather station at Lake Minchumina, deep in the shadow of Denali and a healthy plane ride from Fairbanks in the 1940s. Walt and Patricia educated themselves in Alaska history, anthropology and Native cultures by reading books around the hearth at night. By day they raised capable and resourceful kids, ran the weather station and post office, mushed traplines on vacations, learned to fly bush planes, and treasured every species of learning.

When, decades later, a fire burned their Anchorage home to the ground, Walt's greatest anguish -- given that, thankfully, no one was injured -- was losing his library. "Why, God, did you take my books?" he shouted to the skies.

The Parkers had moved to Anchorage in the late '50s and planted roots on the eastern fringes of town. The family estate still occupies four acres in the middle of East Anchorage. Patricia became an authoritative biologist. Walt served on the Borough Assembly and, when city and borough governments in Anchorage decided to merge, his daughter Lisa got herself elected at age 19 to the unification commission that put together the deal. He left federal service in 1971 -- purged by Nixon, he liked to say -- and went off to Syracuse University for a master's degree and then spent some time in Washington that set the stage for his biggest contributions in Alaska. His involvements in pipeline safety, aviation design, arctic science, communications and conservation shaped modern Alaska profoundly. There's an alphabet soup of agencies he staffed, led or transformed.


I got to know Walt and his family best in 1989 after I covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a freelancer for the Boston Globe and Walt was named chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, empaneled to study the causes and consequences of the spill. As it happens, we Alaskans had not avoided those Outside environmental disasters -- in fact, the spill happened after just about exactly the number of Prince William Sound tanker transits as predicted by an earlier study done by a maritime transportation expert named Walt Parker. He had helped draw the boundaries of the tanker lanes Exxon Valdez deviated from, so it naturally fell to him to lead the inquiry as to why.

He hired me to help draft and edit the report of the commission, and then he hauled me along when he went to Juneau and Washington to demand better protections. Mostly I just watched in awe as he worked the levers of power. A tremendous number of the commission's recommendations eventually became law, thanks largely to Walt and the team of experts and attorneys he assembled. He knew how to make politics make sense.

Over time his consulting services were more in demand abroad than in the modern Alaska. Angola, India, China, Finland, Israel, Iceland, Russia ... I came to believe he traveled more than the secretary of state. As he got older and after Patricia died from a lifelong struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, Walt mused about moving to Paris to become a boulevardier, sitting at the cafes with a pair of Parker dogs at his feet.

In 2001 while serving as editorial page editor of the Daily News I signed up for an American editorial writers' tour of Israel and the West Bank. In those days Walt wrote an occasional column for the paper, and I jokingly suggested he, too, ought to join the trip. I should have known that he certainly would. A week or so before departure, the organizers contacted me because they had to take care of various customs details. The trip turned out to be taking place three weeks after 9/11, and let's just say the Middle East was a bit tense. Could I help them reach Walt Parker right away?

"Nope," I said. "He's in Mongolia on a telecom project."

I wasn't sure they fully believed that story, but nobody who already knew Walt would have doubted it for a moment. And last week, while he was fighting pneumonia on what turned out to be his deathbed, I urged him to get well so we could make another trip to Israel. He could no longer speak, but -- fierce light in his eyes -- he nodded firmly to make clear he planned to do just that.

Steve Lindbeck is general manager of Alaska Public Media. He and his wife Patty Ginsburg were married in 1992 in a ceremony at the Parker estate presided over by Walt Parker.


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