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Remembering Ted Stevens -- A Great Man and a Good Man

Theodore Fulton Stevens served Alaska for 40 years in the United States Senate, but his career goes back to the Eisenhower administration and extends through 60 years of overall public service to the State of Alaska and the nation.

Ted’s public service career began as a lawyer with the Department of the Interior in the 1950’s, when he helped write the Statehood Act and convince President Eisenhower that Alaska could sustain itself as a state.

Ted’s influence on Alaska was so far reaching and complex that future Alaskans will simply take for granted the foundation of opportunity upon which they stand due to Ted’s mastery of the processes of government to help a state like Alaska play catch-up with services taken for granted across the continental United States.

But Ted’s greatness was truly national. His impact on health care, defense, telecommunications, transportation, energy, sports and the arts are of such consequence that he stands as one of the greatest United States Senators in the nation’s history.

But the personal side of Ted is what those who knew him best remember. He would quietly aid Alaskans in the smallest of concerns: a man who couldn’t get a Coast Guard permit to operate a fishing boat because he was adopted and “couldn’t prove I was born”, or a person unable to penetrate the federal bureaucracy with a tax, or medical issue. No request for help by an individual Alaskan ever went unanswered.

Two of Ted’s most quotable quips were ‘To Hell with politics, do what’s right for Alaska” and “I don’t lose my temper. I always know where it is.”

Senator Stevens suffered a terrible ordeal in the criminal trial that ended his political career and then resolved itself in his conviction being thrown out. This unfolded during the 2008 U.S. Senate campaign and even with the cloud over him Ted won on election night and only slipped behind as early votes cast before he could return to Alaska and defend himself were counted in the succeeding weeks.

Ted grew up during the Depression, born behind his grandparents' home in Indianapolis in 1923. His parents later divorced and Ted helped raise his siblings. 

He moved to California at 15 to live with the mother of a disabled cousin after his grandfather died and his grandmother could no longer afford the bills. He worked while going to school, surfed, (a huge wooden surfboard was a fixture in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building), played football at Redondo High School, entered the military and served with the Flying Tigers in China, receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ted and his wife Ann first came to Fairbanks, Alaska as an Attorney in 1952, then he served as District Attorney, and then as a gun toting U.S. Attorney in 1954. The stories of this era would fill a book by themselves.

Ted and Ann had five children.

Ted entered the U.S. Senate in 1968 after Senator Bob Bartlett passed away and then Governor Walter J. Hickel, who himself passed away last month at the age of 90, bypassed better known Alaskans and appointed Ted to replace Bartlett – seeing Ted as someone who could build seniority that could benefit the fledging state.

In 1978, a Lear Jet landing at Anchorage International Airport with Ted and his wife Ann crashed, killing Ann and all others except Ted and Tony Motley, who became a U.S. Ambassador to Brazil and has remained one of Stevens’ closest friends.

In 1980 Ted remarried Catherine Bittner and they have a daughter Lily whose marriage they celebrated during the 2008 election.

There is no short version of Ted Stevens’ life. Every major milestone in Alaska’s history as a state is linked to Ted Stevens. Every person who built a business and created jobs can point to Ted as a pivotal factor in their ability to do so.

It is a shame that Ted could not share perspective on his own life in a book before his passing, though it would undoubtedly have been understated. Much will be accumulated and written about Ted that will help create this perspective. Most of us who are long time Alaskans will choose to remember what put Ted where he was when this tragedy took place. The man loved the Alaska outdoors. He loved a simple campsite. And he loved to fish.

There are many good men in this world. There are few great men. Ted Stevens was both.

Arthur Hackney is a lifelong Alaskan who was born the year before Ted Stevens arrived in Alaska. The two were installed as Pioneers of Alaska at a special ceremony in Fairbanks in 1996. His father and Ted Stevens were born the same year. Hackney handled the campaign messaging for Senator Stevens for five U.S. Senate campaigns from 1984 through 2008.

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