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Wednesday, January 24, 2018
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Ted Stevens, may we meet again

Sen. Ted Stevens

Sen. Ted Stevens

CAN IT HAVE BEEN SIX YEARS?

2:30 PM, AUG. 9, 2016 – Six years hence, and Alaskans still think of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens as the beloved family member who will come home soon, smile on his face and some pithy observation, perhaps about the Internet.

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Things are just not the same without him.

It was right about now, on Aug. 9, 2010, when the small floatplane plane carrying Senator Stevens and eight others crashed about 10 miles northwest of Aleknagik, and it was a moment when Alaskans felt their history had changed forever.

The weather was bad, and the mountainous area was generally flown under visual flight rules, with no radar support for flights that low. No one knows why the plane crashed — perhaps the pilot had a heart attack or stroke.  “Temporary unresponsiveness” of the 62-year-old pilot was how the National Transportation Safety Board described it the following year. Five of the nine onboard died in that crash, including pilot Theron Smith, who had suffered a small stroke four years prior.

Stevens served as U.S. Senator for Alaska from December 24, 1968, until January 3, 2009. He was a lion for Alaska, having played a major role in the creation of Statehood, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Few remember his strong support of women’s sports and the work he did as a sponsor of Title 9, as well as the establishment of the  U.S. Olympic Committee. He sponsored Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

After being targeted by a US Justice Department witch hunt in 2008, he narrowly lost his re-election to Mark Begich. The Natives of Alaska abandoned him at the ballot box, which ended up being one of the biggest hurts of all, as friends would later tell it. Nearly all rural precincts voted for Begich over Stevens that year. But before sentencing the entire case was thrown out because of gross prosecutorial misconduct.

For his family, today is not just another day. Although Stevens served more time in the U.S. Senate than any Republican in history, he was father, husband and friend.

Ted Stevens speaks a group at the Petroleum Club in 2009 at a fundraiser for Dan Sullivan for Mayor.

Ted Stevens speaks a group at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage on April 24, 2009 at a fundraiser for Dan Sullivan for Mayor. Steve Strait photo

‘A LION WHO RETREATED BEFORE NOTHING’

This blog’s writer had been a speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell for merely a few weeks before the fatal crash.

I remember the growing tension in the air on the 17th floor of he Atwood Building as the governor was awaiting official word on what was already feared.

The working over of his formal remarks was painful and I did not feel up to the task. No one ever is ready for such an enormous and tragic event.

Governor Parnell looked at what I had written and, with uncharacteristic impatience, said: “No, it has to be bigger. He was a lion for Alaska.”

The final version included that phrase, which is as true today as when Governor Parnell spoke it spontaneously and with reverence: “Senator Ted Stevens fought hard for our future in Alaska. He was larger than life. Ted was a lion who retreated before nothing. He was a devoted husband… a loving father. His impact on Alaska will live on in future generations.”

The memorial service for Ted Stevens in Girdwood, on Aug. 29, 2010. Steve Strait photo

The memorial service for Ted Stevens in Girdwood, on Aug. 29, 2010. Steve Strait photo


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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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