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Services Set for Former Territorial Governor, Statehood Advocate Mike Stepovich

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Stepovich family
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People from around Alaska and Outside are arriving in Fairbanks to bid final farewell to former territorial governor Mike Stepovich. Stepovich died Feb. 14 at the age of 94 in California. His body was returned to Fairbanks last week.

Mike Stepovich was a Fairbanks native and son of an immigrant miner who’ll be remembered as a pioneer and public servant who dedicated his life to Alaska.

But his eldest daughter says the best way to begin to appreciate the important role her father played in Alaska history is by understanding that he loved the Last Frontier more than almost anything else.

“The three things that were most important to him were family, faith and Alaska,” Antonia Gore said. “Those were the three pillars of his life.”

Gore says her father entered politics as a young man in the 1950s after serving in the Navy during World War II and later as Fairbanks’ city attorney, because she says he saw a need – in this case, a young territory that required smart young Alaskans to help govern it.

“He was a young man,” she said. “He saw what he thought needed to be done, and so he just set out to do it. And that’s sort of how he lived his life. Which I think is an Alaskan trait. You see something that needs to get done, you do it. Because you know if you wait around, it might not get done. It’s a small population. So, everybody pitches in.”

Stepovich served three terms in the Territorial Legislature as a Republican, and gained a reputation as a diplomatic consensus-builder who held the needs of Alaska above party. That may have helped influence President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to appoint the 38-year-old Stepovich as territorial governor in 1957.

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Credit UAF Library archives
Stepovich celebrates Alaska statehood in a get-together at the White House with President Eisenhower, left, and Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, right.

Gore says by then Stepovich had come to believe Alaska must become a state, so it could take care of more of its own affairs. And although many here in Alaska and Outside were skeptical, Stepovich took up the cause, with encouragement by his friend and fellow statehood advocate Bob Bartlett, the territory’s Democratic delegate to Congress.

In 1958, the young governor began what his daughter calls a sort of nationwide lobbying effort to give Americans an up-close look at the face of Alaska, and in the process win their support for its statehood.

Part of that effort took place in the media – Time and Life magazines ran cover stories on Stepovich and the statehood drive. And on television, including appearances on a popular game show and a late-night talk show.

“That was part of the lobbying effort,” she said. “Also, he was on the ‘Jack Paar Tonight Show.’ That was another way of getting the word out that Alaska had bright, smart people there.”

Congress granted statehood on June 30, 1958, and two months later, Stepovich resigned to run for the U.S. Senate. But he lost to Ernest Gruening and two years later Bill Egan beat him in a race for governor. In 1966, he lost out to fellow Republican Wally Hickel in the gubernatorial primary.

Gore says he father took it all in stride, because he wasn’t running for office for fame or political advancement. His motivation was, again, to help out.

“He ran because he thought there was something he could do – something he could offer,” she said.

Stepovich had spent much of his time living in Oregon in recent decades, but maintained Alaska residency and close ties with family and friends in Fairbanks.

Stepovich’s legacy will be commemorated in a reception to be held Friday afternoon at the UAF Wood Center, after Mass is celebrated in an early morning service at Sacred Heart Cathedral. He’ll be laid to rest later at Birch Hill Cemetery, with full military honors and escort by Alaska State Troopers.

Editor's Note: Services begin tonight with a viewing at Immaculate Conception Church.