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Former territorial governor dies at age 94

Posted: February 15, 2014 - 9:00pm

ANCHORAGE — A man who lobbied congressional members for Alaska statehood and served as one of the state’s last territorial governors has died.

Mike Stepovich died early Friday in a San Diego hospital at the age of 94, his daughter, Antonia Stepovich Gore, told The Associated Press. Services are pending.

“Our hearts are full,” she said.

She said the three things that were most important to him were “family, faith and Alaska, and that could be in any order on any given day.”

“He had a very long life, full of achievements and accomplishments,” she said.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Friday ordered that state flags be lowered in Stepovich’s honor. Flags will remain at half-staff until the day after his service.

“Alaska has lost a true pioneer,” Parnell said in a statement. “Gov. Stepovich was a strong, selfless figure. His love for our state is a great legacy that will endure for generations of Alaskans.”

A moment of silence also was held on the floor of the Alaska House on Friday.

State Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said he has been reading through books on the battle for statehood. “His real lasting legacy is, we got statehood. We’re here,” Kawasaki said.

Stepovich was born in 1919 in Fairbanks. He received his law degree from Notre Dame.

When Alaska was waging the war for statehood, he traveled extensively throughout the Lower 48 to build grassroots support for it to become the 49th state.

Stepovich then went to Washington, D.C., ahead of floor votes in the U.S. House and Senate to admit Alaska to the union. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bartlett, D-Alaska, called Stepovich “the most effective lobbyist for statehood,” according to Gore.

A well-known, July 1, 1958, photograph by the AP shows Stepovich standing between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Interior Secretary Frederick Seaton. Stepovich is flashing a broad smile and holding a newspaper with a banner headline, “WE’RE IN.”

While governor, he also graced the cover of Time Magazine on June 9, 1958. Behind him was a totem pole with an oil derrick sitting at the top. The original painting that was used for the cover continues to hang in the Stepovich home.

Stepovich served three terms in the Alaska Territorial Legislature in the 1950s before Eisenhower appointed him territorial governor in 1957 at the age of 38.

Stepovich resigned a year later for an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.

Besides law and politics, he also loved playing handball and baseball. Gore said her father was once scouted by the Boston Red Sox while he was in college.

Following his return to Alaska after receiving his law degree, he remained active in baseball, coaching the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks in the summer league. During his many years with the Goldpanners, he coached several future Major League players, including Tom Seaver and Rick Monday, she said.

Gore said her father never really retired from practicing law, serving on several panels and advising two of his sons who practice in Alaska.

He also remained physically active throughout his life. “He played handball right up until he shouldn’t have,” Gore said.

Stepovich was at a son’s home in San Diego when he fell last Saturday night. He had been hospitalized since in a semiconscious state after suffering head injuries.

Survivors include 13 children and their families. His wife, former Alaska first lady Matilda Stepovich, died Nov. 25, 2003.

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