Mike Stepovich peered over Dwight Eisenhower’s shoulder while the president signed Alaska’s statehood proclamation — just to be sure.
“We did it; we’re in,” Stepovich thought while Eisenhower, not an original backer of Alaska statehood, dragged his pen across the page.
This signature on Jan. 3, 1959, made Alaska the country’s 49th state and touched off a series of celebrations more than 4,800km away while William Egan took an oath in a downtown Juneau movie theater to serve as the state’s first governor.
“That was the final act,” said Stepovich, now 89. “Congress approved it six months earlier, but it never came about until it was signed by Eisenhower. He wasn’t for it at first, but by then he was. There was such relief.”
For the next 50 years Alaska built on its appeal as rugged and at times untamed, while becoming a key domestic energy provider, a place for critically located military bases during the Cold War, and a state with a highly charged —and of late, hostile — political climate.
Alaska has provided 15 billion barrels of oil — as well as the most costly oil spill in US history that led to a protracted legal battle. Oil has also provided Alaska with nearly 90 percent of its state treasury annually.
It’s offered fodder for political pundits and humorists following the unsuccessful Republican vice presidential run of Governor Sarah Palin, and the federal corruption scandal that stretched from Juneau to Washington, where it ensnared Senator Ted Stevens.
And it’s given writers and directors a place to set a scene for memorable books, movies and TV shows. Think James Michener’s book Alaska, the movie Limbo, with director John Sayles, or the Discovery Channel documentary Deadliest Catch.
The state’s foundation was built by fishermen, miners, lawyers, merchants, homesteaders.
Today, Alaska’s leaders still are made up of people unafraid to get dirty, while serving in the legislature for half a year then casting nets at sea and hunting for food in the interim.
“Most of us still share a love for the land we live on,” said state Representative John Coghill, a Republican whose father, Jack, was one of the state Constitution’s drafters. “In the end, that’s what’s made us work well together.”
Recently, the nation’s look at Alaska has been through a political prism: concurrent, unrelated developments that led to Stevens’ conviction for lying on federal disclosure forms and Palin’s emergence onto the national scene as the US’ favorite hockey mom.
But to those living here, especially historians, that point of view may be an important slice of Alaskana, but it is still myopic.
They point to the state’s wildlife that attracts photographers, artists and hunters: Features such as bears pouncing on salmon; moose roaming parks as well as the streets of downtown Anchorage; eagles soaring overhead.
They cite the Iditarod, a long-distance dog sled race and the one sport that puts Alaska in the national spotlight.
And they mention the tasty seafood that lands on the plates of many in the Lower 48 states. Alaska supplies nearly 50 percent of the country’s seafood, including delicacies such as Copper River salmon that fetched up to US$40 per 2.2kg last year.