Saturday, May 08, 2010

Former Alaska Governor And Nixon Secretary Of The Interior Walter Hickel Passes On At The Age Of 90, Personified The Alaskan Spirit

Just hours ago, the Anchorage Daily News, the Alaska Dispatch, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and KTUU Channel 2 reported that Walter Hickel, one of our former governors and a Secretary of the Interior during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, passed away at the age of 90. This post combines and summarizes highlights from the three media references.

Anchorage Daily News gallery of 28 photos available HERE. Reaction from the Hickel family, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, Governor Sean Parnell, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, and Lt. Gov. candidate Eddie Burke (who knew Hickel personally) can be found HERE.

Hickel, born on August 18th, 1919, died at 9:52 P.M. at Horizon House in Anchorage, a hospice operated by Providence Alaska Medical Center. He'd recently had a mild heart attack and some pneumonia. But his close friend and aide, Malcolm Roberts, said Hickel's passing was really being described as just complications from old age. Hickel leaves behind his wife, Ermalee, who he married in 1945. He had six sons, 21 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. One of Hickel's sons was by a previous marriage to Janice Cannon, who passed away in 1943.

UAA Professor Stephen Haycox, who I've frequently criticized on this blog, summed up Hickel's life well. "He was Alaska's greatest cheerleader and a very effective one, thoroughly dedicated to the idea that people in Alaska should take hold of Alaska, to meet their needs and their vision of the future," said Haycox. Comments posted to the ADN story indicate most everyone shares that point of view.

Walter Hickel was instrumental in mobilizing Republican support for Alaska's eventual statehood in 1959. He was both the second and eighth Governor of Alaska. His first term as governor was from 1966 to 1969, after which he resigned to accept a position as Secretary of the Interior. During his first term, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, although construction of the pipeline would not begin until later. Hickel also appointed a man to the U.S. Senate who would become a political legend in his own right -- Ted Stevens -- to replace deceased Bob Bartlett. Ironically, Hickel would later call for Stevens' resignation in the wake of convictions for misreporting on Senate disclosure forms.

In 1969, Walter Hickel accepted a calling as Secretary of the Interior after President Richard M. Nixon wouldn't take no for an answer. As secretary, Hickel was a strong proponent of environmentalism, and after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, he ordered a halt to domestic offshore drilling in order to review federal regulations. Nixon began to sour on him at that point. Hickel was also a key player in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Nixon eventually fired Hickel in 1970 over a letter Hickel wrote critical of the administration's handling of the Vietnam War and its relationship with college students protesting the war.

In 1990 Hickel again ran for governor, this time as a member of the Alaska Independence Party. He defeated Republican Arliss Sturgulewski and Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election. After taking office as Alaska's eighth governor, Hickel negotiated a billion-dollar settlement with Exxon to restore, protect and enhance land and resources in coastal areas impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Before completing his term, Hickel switched back to the Republican Party, having never become reconciled to the secessionist plank in the Alaska Independence Party.

With his popularity sagging, Hickel chose to not run for re-election in 1994 and Democrat Tony Knowles was elected. Hickel returned to Anchorage to run his business, while also serving as head of the Northern Forum, an international group addressing polar issues. But Hickel remained interested in politics, and endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker during a September 2009 news conference.

Hickel also was an early supporter of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during her campaign in 2006. However, that support waned after she became Republican John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential race. In a September 26th, 2009 guest column in the Anchorage Daily News, he decried what he said was her penchant for partisan politics during the campaign.

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