Senator Ted Stevens (1923-2010)

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It was 1972 and Ted Stevens was coming to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus to campaign for US Senator. At that time there was some act before Congress involving HUD that had much to do with Alaska. I was a reporter for the Polar Star, the UAF student newspaper, that semester, and my editor told me to go make Ted explain it to me.

So I get to the upper campus commons, where students are coming and going for supper, and Ted parks himself at a table and a group quickly forms to talk to him. I introduce myself and take a seat next to him. In a lull I ask him about the HUD program. I barely know what the initials stand for and it shows, but patiently and in words of one syllable he explains the whole act to me and the effect it will have on Alaska.

All the while students walk into the commons, spot him and come over to introduce themselves and talk about what is bothering them (that year it was the draft, big time). Later his opponent, Gene Guess, shows up and starts table-hopping and shaking hands. I go over to get a quote and then return to Ted’s table, where he picks up the thread of his HUD explanation without missing a beat.

I wrote up the story and turned it in. My editor, a Walter Burns-in-training who had no ability whatsoever to pay a compliment, read it and said in a surprised voice, “Man, I think I actually understand this.”

Ted was never warm and fuzzy but he was always interested. That evening he looked me and every other student straight in the eye and he paid attention to what we said. And he’d remember it, and us. I didn’t see him again for another eight years, this time in Prudhoe Bay. I said, “You probably don’t remember me, Senator, I’m–” And he said “Sure, I do, you’re Dana, I met you in Fairbanks in 1972.” I remember thinking, wow, I didn’t know I was that memorable.

I wasn’t. Ted was that good.

Ted Stevens did more for Alaska and Alaskans than anybody since William H. Seward. There isn’t a person or a community whose lives he didn’t improve in a real, material way. We drive on roads he got funded, there are hospitals and schools and libraries that wouldn’t exist without him, he even found funding for my Authors to the Bush program for Alaska Sisters in Crime, and, yes, we fly more safely than we ever did before because of Ted. Alaska is what it is today largely because of his efforts in D.C., and there never was and never will be a better constituent representative.

We didn’t always agree. I’ve still got a copy of the letter I sent him when we were getting ready to go into Iraq the second time, and I vividly remember the page and a half he sent in reply. Ted was never afraid to engage in a dialogue. And he always, always wrote back.

You be wearing that Hulk tie now, Senator, just in case St. Peter has any second thoughts about opening up them gates.

10 thoughts on “Senator Ted Stevens (1923-2010)

  1. Pegge Bernecker says:

    Dana–I appreciate your memories and sharing about the significance of Senator Stevens. You are right on, and you portray the man I met, and will remember. Though I’m a fairly new Alaskan, I know the mark he made for Alaska, and to me, too. Thank you.

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  2. Freya Anderson says:

    Your story reminds me about when I met Jay Hammond when I was at UAF. It really illustrates that being a statesman isn’t about the fancy speeches. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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  3. Ruth Simon says:

    When I heard about former Senator Stevens’ death, I knew I had to see what Ms. Stabenow had to say about him. As an Outsider, I don’t know much about the man. My only knowledge of him came from press articles that often portrayed him as milking the earmarks system. I knew Ms. Stabenow would provide a different take on his legacy. Thank you for sharing your memories of him.

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  4. Dennis Fradley says:

    I knew Sen. Stevens since 1968, and worked for him in D.C. for 6 years. Your tribute is perfect. “…there never was and never will be a better constituent representative.” Right on. Thank you.

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  5. Linda Fritz Bell says:

    Dear Dana,

    What a lovely story and commentary about Ted Stevens. It seems early on you perceived Ted’s remarkable personal qualities—so often at odds with his public persona—long before he became, “Uncle Ted.”

    The Hulk tie, the oft times crusty demeanor, the fiery public rants–they were his cover, perhaps a form of personal armor. As you observed, underneath beat the big heart of a man very attuned to the needs of others.

    Ted was a friend to three generations of our family, beginning with my uncle, “Doc” Fritz, Alaska’s first ophthalmologist, who served with him in the Alaskan legislature in the 1960s. They had much in common—arriving in Alaska when it was still a territory, both were WW II vets and pilots, and both were drawn to Alaska’s beauty as well as her tremendous needs. One goal, in particular, that they shared was to make modern medical care available to all Alaskans, especially Native Alaskans living in remote villages.

    Ted was an exceptional man whose generous spirit and service to others reached well beyond his beloved Alaska. My husband and I, our sons are not Alaskans, but Senator Stevens served us well, too. He believed in a strong defense and traveled many miles that took him away from home and family in his determination to support the military and to make sure they were properly equipped to defend our nation. We are particularly appreciative of his efforts now, with one of our sons now a Navy helicopter pilot.

    This past winter, Ted, Bill Philips, and another fishing buddy stopped by our home in Florida bearing Spanish Mackerel after a fine day of fishing out of Jupiter Inlet. We sat around an outdoor table, the long shadows of late afternoon keeping us comfortably cool during that hour or so we spent sipping a special bottle of red wine and talking. I will hold on to that final image of Ted at his ease, looking robust, relaxed, and quietly satisfied—as one might expect … after a great day of fishing.

    Ted was a complex, multifaceted man, and even for those of us who thought we knew him fairly well, there is much still to know. As the many tributes are published, and the many stories emerge, we begin to get a truer sense of this man Ted Stevens. We begin to grasp all that we have lost with his untimely death. Such giants don’t come along often and when they do pass into history, they leave behind a terrible void. Our family mourns Ted Stevens’ death, but his life story will continue to inspire us and our boys—now really young men—and I hope many others.

    Dana, I hope you and other Alaskan writers will keep telling us stories of these giants who have populated Alaska, and hopefully will continue to. We need to be buoyed by their tenacity and their can-do Alaskan spirit—now more than ever.

    * * *

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