Mike Stepovich, the 15th and final Territorial Governor of Alaska died on Friday morning. He was 94.
The son of an immigrant gold miner, who came to Alaska during the gold rush, Stepovich was born in Fairbanks in 1919. After getting his law degree at Notre Dame, Stepovich joined the Navy during World War II.
Returning to Fairbanks, he began coaching the Alaska Goldpanners baseball team and practicing law. After three terms in the Territorial Legislature, President Eisenhower appointed him territorial governor. At 38, Stepovich would become the state’s youngest, and first Alaska born governor.
While many pioneer Alaskans had a hand in gaining statehood, as governor, Mike Stepovich was one of the driving forces. Traveling the country, constantly lobbying, Stepovich appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine, the “Tonight Show with Jack Parr”, and even the game show “What’s My Line”. Eisenhower, who initially believed Alaska should just exist as a buffer between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, eventually was swayed by Stepovich and others to support statehood for Alaska.
A good friend of mine recalled parking her car in downtown Fairbanks one summer day decades ago. She was on her way to work, when a man called out, “Ma’am, your car is leaking anti-freeze.” The man insisted on her opening the hood, he tracked down the problem, tightened a couple of clamps, then wished her a good day. When my friend entered her workplace, she asked someone who the gentleman was who had helped her. “Oh. That was Governor Stepovich.”
With Fairbanks being such a small town, I’ve met and chatted with the Governor several times. Normally, I don’t think too many politicians are worth their weight in snow, but I found Governor Stepovich to be a class act. He was always very patient with my questions on Alaska’s territorial days, and shared some great stories. One Christmas, I received a book on Alaska’s trek towards statehood, signed to me from the Governor.
Gov. Stepovich, while visiting one of his sons in San Diego, suffered a fall resulting in severe head injuries last Saturday. He spent his final six days in the hospital in a semi-conscious state, with his 13 children at his side. Former Alaska First Lady, Matilda Stepovich passed away in 2003.
No matter your political interests, or your feelings on statehood, one would have a hard time disputing this fact: Mike Stepovich truly loved Alaska.