The body of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens arrived at All Saints Episcopal Church in Anchorage Tuesday morning, where the late senator will be lying in repose until 8 p.m. Stevens was among five people killed in an Aug. 9 plane crash.
At 9 a.m., a joint military honor guard was assembled outside the church. Stevens' widow, Catherine, his six children and some of his 11 grandchildren were paying their respects. By 10 a.m., mourners had formed a line waiting to enter the church.
Although he had no intention of being the first one through the church's doors, Anchorage resident Michael Munger found himself leading the somber trail of people who felt moved to make a personal appearance to honor of Stevens.
"I had a tremendous amount of respect for the senator and believed he was the greatest Alaskan that ever lived," Munger said.
When he first met the senator in 2002, through his work with Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Council, Munger, the group's executive director, was struck by the senator's energy and drive. "He was just a feisty old guy. I don't think we'll ever see another guy like that," Munger said.
Lindsay Bismark, who lives in Tyonek and is the village's postmaster, made the sojourn to the church with her three daughters in tow. The girls, ages 11, 9 and 8, dressed in blue jeans and Croc sandals, circled around their mom as she snapped photos on her cell phone of the casket's arrival. "We were in town and just decided to come down. He's Alaska's hero," she said.
"He's awesome," said Trinity Standifer, the oldest of Bismark's girls. Asked why she felt that way, she said Stevens did a "whole bunch of stuff," adding "if it weren't for him, we wouldn't have a bunch of the things we have where we live."
Stevens was a longtime advocate of rural Alaska and fought hard to bring health care, water and even routine mail service to many communities. Bismark never had a chance to meet the senator, but her mother did when, as a child, she received an award from Stevens for helping save the life of a boy who fell through ice. That personal attention -- taking time to recognize people's efforts with a handwritten note, personal handshake or phone call -- is a trait many recall fondly of Stevens.
Denise Morris, executive director for the Alaska Native Justice Center, received a handwritten condolence from him when her sister died, as he had done for members of her staff who had suffered similar personal losses from time to time. Stevens supported the Justice Center by attending fundraisers and lending his name to the group's efforts.
Standing in line as light rain began to fall, Morris told a story of an acquaintance who recalls Stevens helping an elderly widow in a village. When asked what he could do for her, she said she wanted to go fishing, but that since her husband had passed away and her children weren't around, there was no one to drill a hole in the ice. Stevens "went out and got it done," Morris recalled, although she didn't know if Stevens personally drilled the hole or had someone else do it.
Stories of Stevens' unexpected appearances seemingly out of nowhere in Alaska's most remote communities aren't unusual. A few years ago in Barrow, as whaling captain Charlie Hopson was ceremoniously commanding his successful crew to shore, there stood Stevens on the shoreline to greet them. Hopson and his wife, who have been close with the Stevens family for years, travelled to Anchorage for the memorial and funeral service.
Hopson's wife, Adeline, was a staffer for Stevens from 1970 to 1972. He had met her during hearings on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. One month later Stevens called her out of the blue and offered her a job. Around the same time period, and before the couple had married, Hopson was fighting a federal ban on whale hunting. "He helped us protect our culture," said Hopson, recalling Stevens' help with fighting the ban.
"He was a down to earth man," Adeline Hopson said. "He told you things the way they were. If he thought you were doing something wrong, he would let you know because he cared."
Longtime Stevens staffer Barbara Mee had a hard time holding back tears as she greeted mourners at the small staircase leading into the church. Mee, who worked for Stevens for more than 35 years, has more than enough stories to fill a book, which she's done. In fact, Stevens had taken a draft of "Sen. Ted and Mee" with him during his last trip to Western Alaska earlier this month.
When Mee got married, Stevens presided over the ceremony. Although he had a distaste for golf -- it "takes too much time," Stevens was known to say - he was more than happy to perform the ceremony on the ninth hole of a golf course under sunny skies. This year, her Aug. 18 wedding anniversary will be spent at Stevens' funeral.
Biden, Inouye to deliver speeches
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Stevens' remains will be transported via motorcade to Anchorage Baptist Temple, where a funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday. People are encouraged to line the route in remembrance of the late senator. Read and listen to more, including where to find parking for the two events, plus a map of the motorcade route, here.
At Wednesday's funeral, a number of dignitaries are expected to attend. Among them will be Vice President Joe Biden, about two dozen former and current senators -- including Lisa Murkowski, Mark Begich, Daniel Inouye, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett -- Rep. Don Young, Gov. Sean Parnell, and former governors, including Sarah Palin. Biden and Inouye are expected to deliver speeches.
GCI will broadcast the memorial service live on GCI Channel 1, beginning at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Rural communities outside the cable company's subscription area can watch the live feed via 360 North (Gavel to Gavel Alaska) or ARCS. For a full listing of channels and communities, go to GCI.com.
Tributes to a still-growing legacy
Alaska Newspapers Inc. has published a special collection of stories about the late senator's life, career and legacy, including several tributes to him from rural people and Native corporations from around the state. It's definitely worth reading -- and not only because you'll learn how to say "Uncle Ted" in four different Native languages. Download the pdf file, here.
And finally, proof that Stevens' legacy continues to grow ... KTUU-TV reports on the fifth annual Chena Energy Fair at Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks. What does that have to do with Ted Stevens? Well, he attended the fair all four previous times it has been held, he was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at this year's event, and he secured federal funding that created the Denali Commission, which among other things, provided support for a public-private partnership in one particular alternative energy project that is at work today, the "Chena Chiller." Read and watch more about the energy fair and the potential for Alaskan innovators, here.