Politics & Government

Alaska's Walter Hickel, who Nixon fired over Vietnam, dies

ANCHORAGE — Wally Hickel, whose exuberant confidence, boldness and independence during his two terms as governor of Alaska and his role as U.S. secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon, died Friday night at the age of 90.

Hickel died at 9:52 p.m. at Horizon House in Anchorage, an assisted living home operated by Providence Alaska Medical Center. He'd recently had a mild heart attack and pneumonia. But his close friend and aide, Malcolm Roberts, said Hickel's passing was really being described as just complications from old age.

“His time had come,” Roberts said.

Hickel leaves behind his wife, Ermalee, whom he married in 1945. He had six sons, 21 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He shaped Alaska like no one else.

“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, and shape it to meet their needs and their vision of the future,” said Stephen Haycox, an author and professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Born Aug. 18, 1919, in Claflin, Kan., Hickel came to Alaska in 1940, and his legend grew with the state. How the 21-year-old, a welterweight Golden Gloves champion of Kansas, panhandled his way to Alaska and arrived with 37 cents in his pocket. How he washed dishes, did odd jobs, built a house, sold it, used the money to buy two more houses and sold them. How he began building his flagship, the Hotel Captain Cook, even before the rubble was cleared from the Good Friday earthquake in 1964.

Hickel first became governor, as a Republican, in 1966 and, to hear him tell it, had a vision of an “ocean of oil” on the North Slope in the place that became the Prudhoe Bay oil field. Two years later Richard Nixon named Hickel secretary of the Interior, then ended up firing him after Hickel told Nixon he was wrong on Vietnam. Twenty years later, Hickel was elected to a second term as governor, this time on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket after he jumped into the race late in the campaign.

It was Hickel who appointed Ted Stevens to the U.S. Senate in 1968. Nearly 40 years later, it was Hickel who played an early role in the rise of Sarah Palin, supporting her bid for governor before later breaking with her over the natural gas pipeline.

From his famous quotes like “you can’t let nature run wild” to his “owner state” philosophy of using the planet’s commonly held resources for the good of all people, Hickel was a singular figure in the history of the North.

Hickel grew up on his family’s sharecropper farm in Kansas. Severely dyslexic and mostly self-educated, he never went to college and his language was peppered with “he don’t’s” and “pert nears” from his childhood on the plains he plowed as a boy.

He learned to depend on his startling memory, able into his 80’s to cite the month 40 years ago when some event happened. He always credited an instinctual voice inside him, a voice that Hickel described as the “little man,” which guided his decisions and smiled on him when he was right.

Hickel took whatever work he could find after arriving in Alaska on the steamship S.S. Yukon in 1940, from logging to working as a bouncer at an Anchorage saloon called the South Seas. He married Janice Cannon, the daughter of a pioneer family, and they had one son together before she died of illness in 1943.

He became a flight inspector for the armed services until the end of World War II, checking out newly assembled aircraft including “Lend Lease” planes being sent from Alaska to help the Russians fight Nazi Germany. Hickel married Ermalee Strutz, who he described in a book as “delicate as a butterfly, but also tougher than a boot.”

Hickel began building houses for GI’s after the war, taking the profits and investing in new ventures. It was a start he built into rental units, hotels and shopping centers, eventually becoming a millionaire, one of Alaska’s wealthiest men.

Vic Fischer, a former Democratic legislator and delegate to the state Constitutional convention, remembers Hickel in 1953 building one of the first quality hotels in the frontier town of Anchorage. it was called the Travelers Inn. He followed that up with the second Travelers Inn in Fairbanks.

Fischer considered Hickel a good friend and visited him at the hospital until days before his death.

“Wally was a dreamer and a doer and he really loved Alaska. Whatever he did was always designed to make Alaska better,” Fischer said. “He used to say that he is beyond parties, basically he felt we should be not just bipartisan we should do things nonpartisan for the sake of Alaska.’

Fischer worked with Hickel in the fight for statehood in the 1950’s. Hickel spoke of flying to Washington D.C. as a young businessman in 1952, saying he convinced the leading Senate Republican, Robert Taft, that Alaska needed at least 100 million acres in order to survive as a state.

In 1966, Hickel ran as a Republican and defeated Democratic Gov. Bill Egan. He helped to open the North Slope to oil development, though drawing criticism for the “Hickel Highway,” an ice road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay that left a scar when winter ended. Hickel stood behind the road decision, saying it triggered a psychology, a “doer” attitude, that ended up making Prudhoe oil development a reality.

Halfway through his term, in 1968, President Richard Nixon asked Hickel to become Interior secretary. Hickel was assailed by environmentalists during his confirmation hearings, but views of him changed after his handling of the one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history, the Santa Barbara oil spill. He shut down drilling in the channel and wrote regulations to control offshore drilling, including making the oil industry financially liable for well blowouts.

Hickel placed seven species of whales on the endangered list, fought to protect the Everglades in Florida, and his staff reached out to the country’s youth with programs like “Earth Day” in 1970.

Nixon fired Hickel in November 1970, after the press got hold of a letter in which he chided Nixon for failing to listen to America’s youth on the Vietnam War.

Hickel came back to Alaska, pushing hard for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. He also ran for governor again in 1974, 1978, and 1986, losing all three times. He lost the first two races against Republican Jay Hammond, his political rival. Anchorage writer and former Assemblyman Charles Wohlforth, who wrote the 2002 book “Crisis in the Commons” with Hickel, described it as two political philosophies at war over the future of Alaska.

Wohlforth said Hammond’s philosophy was exemplified by the Alaska Permanent Fund, by what he called a more of a pessimistic approach to development and what should be done with oil money. Hammond essentially won, he said, with oil money being put away in the fund and the distribution of the annual dividends to all Alaskans.

“Whereas Hickel wanted that money to be invested in the future, in development and into building things and had this vision of sort of a great civilization in the north,” Wohlforth said. “He wanted the money spent for things we have in common rather than things we have individually.”

Hickel in recent years applauded the fund but advocated for a “community dividend” where at least half the amount set aside for individual dividends would be distributed to communities in order to help pay for roads, schools, clinics, and the like.

Hickel’s return to the governor’s mansion in 1990 was among the most unusual political episodes in Alaska political history. Arliss Sturgulewski was the Republican nominee for governor that year, and Jack Coghill the lieutenant governor nominee. Just weeks before the election, Coghill deserted Sturgulewski and joined Hickel for a last minute run under the flag of the Alaskan Independence Party. The Hickel-Coghill team took office with 39 percent of the vote.

Hickel proposed megaprojects such as a water pipeline to California and an undersea railroad to Siberia. There were rocky times in Hickel’s administration, particularly early on, and he feuded with Native groups, environmentalists and the Legislature.

But Haycox, professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Hickel’s achievements as governor included his administration’s gigantic tax and royalty settlements with the oil industry. Companies agreed to pay the state nearly $4 billion in disputed back taxes and royalties, money that filled the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve fund.

“Which is a very significant legacy, not just because of the money or the reserve fund but because he forced the oil companies to acknowledge that they had a debt that they owed to Alaska,” Haycox said.

Hickel, after leaving office, founded Institute of the North, an Anchorage-based organization that explores Alaska public policy. He remained active in debates, especially advocating the state build a natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

A funeral mass will be celebrated in Anchorage. Details will be announced.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Institute of the North Endowment Fund, Providence Hospital, Commonwealth North or the Alaska SeaLife Center, so that each of these organizations can continue to help the next generation of Alaskans.