Passing: Bill Sheffield, former governor of Alaska

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Former Gov. Bill Sheffield has passed. He died at his home in Anchorage after an extended illness at the age of 94.

William Jennings Sheffield Jr. was the fifth governor of Alaska, from 1982 to 1986. A Democrat, Sheffield was born on June 26, 1928 in Spokane, Wash. He built and owned hotels under Sheffield Enterprises, eventually owning 19 hotels, which he sold to Holland America. Those hotels are now known as Westmark.

Sheffield had studied at DeForest Training School in Chicago and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1946 to 1949. He moved to Alaska in 1953 as an employee of Sears Roebuck Company, arriving by steamship in Seward, taking the train to Anchorage, where he eventually founded his hotel management firm. He also served as president of the Alaska Visitors Association and the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and as national director of the U.S. Jaycees. Sheffield was a member of the Anchorage City Planning Commission and the Anchorage Charter Commission. 

In the 1982 election, Sheffield won over Anchorage civic leader Tom Fink, a Republican; Dick Randolph, Libertarian; and Joe Vogler of the Alaska Independence Party. During his reelection campaign four years later, he was tarnished by a scandal that had led to impeachment hearings in the Senate, and he lost in the primary to Democrat Steve Cowper, who ultimately won the governor’s race that year.

After leaving the position of governor, Sheffield served as chairman of the Board of Directors for Alaska Railroad from 1985 to 1997. In 1997 he was promoted to President and CEO of the railroad, where he served until 2001. In the past few years he suffered from failing health and until recently, he hosted many political fundraisers at his home. The Don Young summer “Taste of Alaska” fundraiser was one that many in Alaska will remember attending in past years.

Former Gov. Sean Parnell, who had the support of Sheffield during his 2014 reelection campaign, issued a statement: “Sandy and I were saddened today to learn of Governor Sheffield’s passing. Bill’s contagious optimism and his larger than life vision for what Alaska can be and for what Alaskans can do together will remain as his legacy.”

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Sheffield was quite the man. Tom Fink would have beaten him for Governor in 1982, but for Dick Randolph’s switch from Republican to Libertarian……a split among Conservatives, to the benefit of Sheffield. Then, Sheffield rented out his 5th Avenue Building up in Fairbanks to the State while he was governor, another of Sheffield’s sweetheart, backdoor blunders. Democrats wanted to get rid of Sheffield. Cowper entered the scene and by this time Randolph returned to the Republican Party along with Wally Hickel and Arliss Sturgelewski. Another clusterphuck for Republicans as they all got beat. Bill Sheffield was not a good governor, but he was an astute businessman. And if State Senator Bettye Fahrenkamp was alive today, she would say that Sheffield wasn’t a bad poker player either. Especially late at night up in the Capitol. In the Governor’s Office.

  2. I ran into him in the Sears Mall once many years ago when he was still governor. By his actions and demeanor one would never have guessed he was governor, just a friendly, humble, regular guy. A Democrat, yes, but a real Alaskan first. They don’t make them like that anymore, D or R.

  3. Weird, so a former democrat governor supported Sean Parnell in 2014, while a former republican governor supported Bill Walker?

    • AC/DC. Switch hitters.
      btw, have you seen Frank or Nancy Murkowski doing an ads in support of their daughter Lisa?
      Me neither.

  4. Bill Sheffield was the embodiment of the American dream. He built a business empire from humble beginnings. Much like Wally Hickel. I didn’t like his politics but he was not the kind of power hungry egomaniac so many of today’s politicos seem to be. RIP Governor.

  5. What did Sheffield do for Alaskans when he was Board President of the ARRC, other than help a few of his select multi-millionaire friends, who also served on the ARRC Board, to their direct benefit. A money hording game for the few who knew absolutely nothing about railroads. Check the passenger costs for a summer ride on the choo-choo. Only the tourists can afford the trip. Follow the money and the end-profiteers line of business and you will know who they are. Only a very few get to play……..and steal.

  6. Sheffield was old school—meaning of the era when men ran everthing. Proof: I remember him remarking to me that a woman will never be Governor since she can’t stand on her feet all day as he looked at my 1 1/2″ heels.

  7. At the ARRC he helped individual Alaskans when it was unpopular group think to do so. He did it anyway. But for his intercession many good things could not and will not happen. Also, his list of Christmas Card recipients will miss the annual note. He looked forward to doing his very extensive Christmas card list every year. He was genuinely interested in the lives of Alaska’s people. I liked him alot for these reasons.

  8. HE would say : ” We gotta help those people! So-and-so, did you get that letter written for me I asked you for three weeks ago? Get that meeting scheduled and don’t you dare try to take leave until that is done! We gotta HELP those people: I know you don’t want to do it but we are going to!”

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