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Former Alaska Gov. Hickel dead at 90

Maia Nolan-Partnow

hickel-desk
Tony Hopfinger photo
Wally Hickel in 2008.

Longtime Alaskan, entrepreneur, hotelier, author and former governor Walter J. Hickel, 90, passed away in Anchorage at 9:52 p.m. Friday following a brief hospitalization. Known for big ideas and brash statements, Hickel left behind a legacy as unique as the man himself.

Never short on vision, Hickel lived a long life punctuated by a series of bold ventures. He served twice as Alaska's governor -- as a Republican from 1966 to 1969, when he left office to become Secretary of the Interior under President Richard Nixon, and again from 1990 to 1994 as a member of the Alaska Independence Party.

Hickel's life story is the stuff of classic Hollywood movies -- a hardworking young man from a humble background who overcame personal challenges, family tragedy, natural disaster and political setbacks to become one of the most powerful and recognizable figures in Alaska.

Born into a large farming family near Claflin, Kan., Hickel grew up dyslexic long before the term "learning disability" entered the American lexicon. While he wasn't much of a scholar, he was a hard worker and a big dreamer.

"I couldn't read," Hickel said in a 2008 interview. "But I was born with vision."

In 1940, Hickel moved to Alaska. According to a 1969 Los Angeles Times article:

...Hickel stepped onto the pier at Seward, Alaska, with 37 cents in his pockets. He borrowed $10 from a fellow traveler and took the train to Anchorage.

"I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I knew I was going to do it," Hickel recalled later.

Hickel washed dishes in Anchorage's Richmond Cafe, put in a stint as a bartender, worked as a boiler-room helper for the Alaska Railroad, became a civilian inspector for the Air Force and then turned to carpentry.

Soon he was building and selling homes in Anchorage, first one and then several at a time.

He met and married Janice Cannon. They had one son, Ted, before Janice passed away in 1943. Two years later, Hickel married Ermalee Strutz, with whom he had five more sons. As his family grew, so did Hickel's construction and development businesses; before long, the Kansas farm kid who couldn't read was a millionaire.

Never one to back down when he had it in his mind to accomplish something -- or make a point -- Hickel occasionally found himself engaged in public dustups with foes across the political spectrum, from newspaper publisher Bob Atwood (who accused Hickel of derailing the statehood movement by demanding a 100 million acre land entitlement) to environmentalists (who didn't cotton to Hickel's assertion that "you can't just let nature run wild" in a 1992 NBC interview about the state's aerial predator control program). In 1970, after four protesters were shot and killed by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, Hickel publicly criticized Nixon for ignoring the concerns of America's anti-war youth; he was subsequently dismissed from Nixon's cabinet.

Nixon wasn't the only chief executive of whom Hickel ran afoul. In 1954, Hickel and territorial senator John Butrovich Jr. were granted an audience with President Dwight Eisenhower to discuss a statehood plan Eisenhower had approved in which the entire northern part of modern-day Alaska would have been set aside as a massive military reserve. More than 50 years later, Hickel still got a kick out of telling the story of watching Eisenhower's bald head turn red as Butrovich stood in the Oval Office and railed at the president.

"I says, ‘Johnny, you follow up,'" Hickel said in a 2008 interview. "And he just -- oh, boy. He came out. Whoo, man."

Eisenhower, Hickel said, waited until Butrovich took a breath, then turned to Hickel and said, "Well, young man, I'm glad you at least think I'm an American."

While Hickel's civic involvement took him all the way to the White House and back on more than one occasion, in some ways he never stopped being amazed by where life had taken him.

"I came off a Kansas farm," Hickel said. "And here I am telling the President of the United States exactly what to do."

Never one to think small, Hickel reacted to the 1964 Good Friday earthquake by pledging to build Alaska's biggest and best hotel in devastated downtown Anchorage. The first tower of the Hotel Captain Cook opened in 1965; the second and third followed in 1972 and 1978.

In 1966, Hickel ran for governor, beating out popular incumbent Bill Egan, who had presided over the state's constitutional convention, by a margin of 1,080 votes. As Alaska's second governor, Hickel "pummeled interior agencies ranging from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries," according to the 1969 Times article. Hickel "declared war" on the Jones Act, which regulates domestic shipping, by buying a Scandinavian-built ferry boat to shuttle between Alaska and British Columbia. He pushed for development of oilfields that had been discovered on the North Slope, once telling an ARCO geologist who said the company would stop its Alaska exploration, "You drill or I will." When Bob Bartlett died and Hickel needed to fill his seat in the U.S. Senate, he appointed a state representative named Ted Stevens who would go on to become the longest-serving Republican senator in history.

Hickel has long been associated with pro-development views, and his appointment as Secretary of the Interior was opposed by some environmental groups. Some of those concerns were allayed when, following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, he ordered a halt to domestic offshore drilling in order to review federal regulations. One of Hickel's final acts as Interior Secretary was to sign an order adding all eight species of great whales to the Endangered Species List.

After his dismissal from Interior, Hickel returned to Alaska, where he remained active in policy and civic matters. In 1981, Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley was notified that Pope John Paul II would pay a visit to Alaska. Hurley had six weeks to plan for the pontiff's visit, which would include a public Mass on the Delaney Park Strip. Hurley's first phone call was to Hickel. Not only was Hickel a devout Catholic, but Hurley knew he'd be able to get things pulled together in time. The Hickels helped coordinate a small group of organizers who met daily at Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage to prepare for the event as the clock ticked down. According to a 2006 article in the Catholic Anchor marking the 25th anniversary of the visit:

Following Mass and breakfast, the committee would tackle the issues, ranging from logistics to security, from an adequate sound system to entertainment for the thousands who might be waiting for hours for a glimpse of the pontiff.

Not least of the problems was housing and entertaining a glut of officials, any one of whom might have caused a minor stir on an ordinary day in Anchorage. These included four cardinals, the apostolic delegate to the United States, the Italian ambassador to the United States, at least two dozen archbishops and bishops and Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, representing President Ronald Reagan.

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The papal visit -- which attracted somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 Alaskans despite the fact that only about 16,000 Catholics lived in Anchorage at the time -- went off without a hitch and remains the single largest gathering of Alaskans in history.

In 1990, Hickel ran for governor as a third-party candidate on the Alaska Independence ticket -- the party that, among other priorities, advocates for Alaska's secession from the union (a position Hickel never endorsed). He defeated popular Republican state legislator Arliss Sturgulewski and then-Anchorage mayor Tony Knowles (who would later go on to serve two terms as governor).

"I was a Republican governor, I was an Independent governor, and if I'd run again I'd be a Communist," Hickel joked in 2008. His second term in office didn't go entirely smoothly. Environmentalists lambasted Hickel for favoring development regardless of its potential impact on the land, and Hickel found himself dinged with an ethics charge when it turned out he owned a stake in a company that would have benefited from a natural gas pipeline he proposed. A recall measure endorsed by unlikely allies -- the Sierra Club and Hickel's own party -- ultimately failed.

If Hickel was known for being a doer, he was equally recognized -- particularly on the national stage -- as being a dreamer whose plans weren't always met with credulity. His concepts for a railroad tunnel underneath the Bering Strait and a water pipeline from Alaska to California met with ridicule (not that it deterred him).

More recently, Hickel discussed the possibility of mining asteroids for valuable minerals -- an idea that dovetailed with his concept of "the commons," or the world's commonly owned resources, which he believed should be managed to benefit all humans.

In recent years, Hickel stepped into an elder statesman's role, founding the Institute of the North in 1995 to study and promote the "owner state" model of resource management. He'd previously joined forces with his former political opponent, Egan, to found Commonwealth North, a nonpartisan public affairs forum established in 1979. He authored two books: "The Wit and Wisdom of Wally Hickel," a collection of Hickelisms assembled by his longtime friend and aide de camp Malcolm Roberts, and "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution," a treatise on resource management based on the owner state model. Hickel felt inspired to bring the owner state concept -- the idea that resources are owned collectively and should be developed for the benefit of all people -- to the world after visiting his son Jack, who was serving as a medical missionary in Africa. Hickel said Africa reminded him in some ways of pre-statehood Alaska, and he firmly believed that Alaska could be a model for other nations.

"I have a vision," Hickel said in 2008. "What the commons are. And if we manage the commons of the world for the benefit of the region and its people -- not some leader or some oligarch or some company -- you could completely eliminate poverty in this world."

Hickel also became close later in life with another old foe, former Gov. Jay Hammond; before Hammond's passing in 2005, the two retired statesmen found themselves becoming friends, connecting over their shared passion for the state they'd made their home.

"As time went by, it's really funny how much closer they became, as both friends and in terms of their philosophical positions," former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer said in a 2008 interview. "It was just funny to see how much they not only came to respect and like each other, but how much more similar their positions became."

Above all, despite any disagreements anyone may have had with Hickel, it was hard to dispute his love for Alaska and belief in its future.

"Oh, boy, I'd love to be here 50 years from now, or a hundred," Hickel said. "I really would. It would be a tremendous Earth."

Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.