Remembering Wally Hickel

By Dave Donaldson

Former Governor Wally Hickel – elected twice to the state’s highest office – died this weekend, the result of a heart attack he had earlier last week.  He was ninety years old. 

Hickel was elected as the state’s second governor in 1966 and returned to office in 1990.  He  also served as the U-S Secretary of the Interior for the Nixon Administration from 1969 to 1970.

As a twenty-year-old who had won the Golden Gloves welterweight division boxing title in his native Kansas,  Wally Hickel took a ship to Alaska in 1940 and arriving in Anchorage with thirty seven cents in his pocket.   He often told the story of that voyage – staring at the beauty that he saw, until one day looking out a small porthole of the ship, he made a pact with Alaska.

Take care of me,  and I’ll take care of you.

Both sides honored that moment for the next seventy years.  And Wally Hickel kept a fast pace.   In an interview two years ago following a visit to Beijing,  he said there was too much left to do.

I’m going up to heaven and I’m going to tell St. Peter, “If you don’t have a spot for me, send me back.  I’m not through yet.

He became a builder – not just houses and offices and hotels like his Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage,  but a state.  He was strong, busy and dedicated to improving the world around him, taking a early role in the fight for Alaska’s statehood efforts.  The economy was next –there was oil at Prudhoe Bay and he wanted it developed.  And to get it,  he accepted the offer from Richard Nixon to go to Washington D-C to take on the oil industry.

You know,  they weren’t going to build an oil line.  And I’ll never forget,  President Nixon called – he had seen me when I took battles back to Washington when Truman was President, and Eisenhower.  And he called me right after he was elected, and he said Wally you’ve got to become Secretary of the  Interior.  And I said,  No I’m too busy;  I need time to make a living, because when I work on this stuff nobody pays me anything.  Anyhow, he told me I wouldn’t get the oil line unless I came back there, and we wouldn’t have gotten the oil line because they weren’t going to drill in Prudhoe Bay.

The battles began immediately, when an oil rig blew out – just offshore in Santa Barbara California.  He told Union Oil, the owner of the rig that pumped a hundred-thousand gallons of crude to clean up the beaches and the water.   He meant it – and he got it

In doing that,  he also showed his commitment to the environment – despite his reputation as a builder and his recognition  of the need to develop the state’s resources.  As Secretary of the Interior, he had the job of protecting the nation’s land and water.  And as his last act in that office — November 25th, 1970 — he put all eight species of Great Whales on the Endangered Species list.  Since then,  many of those species have come back and, with obvious pride,  he recently said there are now healthy populations.  In retrospect, he said that he had gone against the wishes of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and against, surprising even to him,  the National Aeronautic and Space Administration that used whale oil in space vehicles.

I took the whale, and they said they were going to take the whale.  I says What are you going to do when you run out of whale oil?  Said We’re going to find a substitute.  Well, you’re going to have to find a substitute now, because I’m going to put the whale on the Endangered Species List.  And that’s how I stopped them.

He never saw his final dream – a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez – where gas would be liquefied and shipped overseas.  It came about when then-Governor Jay Hammond asked Hickel and former-governor Egan to help get the project started.  His last international trip was to Asia to encourage markets that would lead to the construction of the project.   Bill Walker went on that trip with him – two years ago this weekend.

One of his favorite sayings,  he would say ideas a much more important that money.  You know my last meeting with him about ten days ago,  the last thing he said as I left his office – we shook hands and he said, “Go build that pipeline.”   As so it was always on his mind, and it was certainly the center of our discussions every time we sat down and discussed what was happening in the state.

Although he was a national figure in Republican Party politics,  he wasn’t tied to the party.  He was elected to his second term as Governor under the Alaskan Independence Party banner – although he frequently joked about never reading their party platform – and disagreeing with their principle goal of secession.  He worked as well with Democrats as Republicans – proudly talking about the Democrats he voted for – including Barack Obama.    He often advised and worked with Democrat Ethan Berkowitz over the years.

I can’t think of anyone who is more true to the north and true to Alaska than Wally Hickel.   His whole idea that we were unique and you had to be bold and you had to have vision – it goes beyond any kind of party politics.  It’s the kind of thing that appeals to all of us, that makes the state a truly unique and wonderful place to live.

Berkowitz shared his observation of many Alaskans:  Whatever the title before his name,  Secretary, Governor, Chairman – to Alaskans he was always Wally.  He was always the kid who was a boxer – and he was always one of us.

The Public is invited to a funeral mass for Governor Hickel next Monday,  on May 17 at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Anchorage.


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