Homer residents along with countless others across Alaska who knew him are mourning the death of former Alaska House member Drew Scalzi, who died Thursday night at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle following a long battle with cancer. He was 53.
Gov. Frank Murkowski's office announced Friday that flags would be lowered around the state in Scalzi's honor when the family announces funeral arrangements. Those arrangements have not yet been announced. Scalzi's wife, Barbara, their daughter, Lacey, and son, Lucas, were unavailable for comment.
A commercial fisherman by trade, Scalzi was elected as a Republican in 2001 and served one term in the Alaska Legislature, holding seats on the Community and Regional Affairs Committee, the Special Committee on Fisheries, the Transportation Committee and several Finance subcommittees.
During his term in state office, he focused much of his efforts on the often controversial and contentious world of fisheries policy. Those who knew him personally and professionally used phrases like "integrity," "warmth," "courageous," "hard working," "common sense," "statesman" and always "friend" in an attempt to convey not only what he was, but also their personal sense of loss.
Born in Meriden, Conn., on Feb. 13, 1952, Scalzi graduated from high school in Boca Raton, Fla., and attended Northwood Technical Institute in Texas, Palm Beach Junior College and the University of Rhode Island. He moved to Fairbanks in 1975 and to Homer in 1978.
He chose a career in commercial fishing and eventually became active in fisheries politics and policy-making. Scalzi ran for and won a seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in 1992. He was re-elected in 1994. A year later his colleagues named him assembly president, a post he held for one year. He was elected to still another term in 1997, serving until voters sent him to Juneau in 2001.
"We feel we've all lost a good friend and great supporter for the Kenai Peninsula Borough," said Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs.
"Drew was one of the most marvelous people I know," said his longtime friend and former assembly colleague Ron Drathman, of Homer. "He was a real hard worker and I'm going to miss him terribly."
Scalzi's battle with cancer began in the 1990s, and because Drathman was a cancer survivor, the two forged a close bond that gave them a capacity to joke occasionally about the struggle.
"There's not much you can do other than that," Drathman said.
Larry Persily, currently working in the Municipality of Anchorage's budget and finance office, served as Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue when Scalzi was in the House. He said Scalzi came to Juneau determined to shape change, but frequently found the experience frustrating.
"He was one of the more active and aggressive members," Persily said. "He came because wanted to get something done and wondered why things couldn't get done."
Scalzi may not have liked taxing or spending, Persily added, but he knew some of it was unavoidable and necessary. "He was not your typical politician," he said. "That may sound clich, but he really wasn't."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who worked closely with Scalzi when the two of them were Alaska House members, said she had just seen and talked to Scalzi in Homer two weeks ago.
"It's tough to believe," she said. "He was one of those guys that didn't really care about the politics. He just wanted to do things because they were the right things to do. You have to admire that. He was just an honest, upfront guy who wanted to do a good job."
The two worked on fiscal policy issues, and Scalzi was unafraid to "get into the thick of it," she said.
"There were things the rest of us would look at and think politically we couldn't get there," she noted. "His attitude was that you've got to start leading don't wait for public sentiment or until it was politically correct. Just do it because it was right."
While Scalzi dealt with a broad range of issues during his stint in the House of Representatives, fisheries were of particular importance to him. Indeed, prior to his election to the House, he already was serving on the International Pacific Halibut Commission and on an advisory panel to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council concerned with IFQ implementation issues.
He served for years on the board of the North Pacific Fisheries Association and on the Alaska Coastal Policy Council from 1993 to 1996.
In 1997, he was received the Mariner of the Year Award.
Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, remembered working with Scalzi during the 22nd Legislature.
"He was such a man of integrity," she said. "More than any other legislator I have ever worked with he always did what was right, even when it was unpopular."
He would seek her advice and knowledge about education funding, she would seek his on fisheries, she said.
"He had a great ability to explain both sides of issues," she said. "It was an honor working with him and being his friend."
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who ran against and defeated Scalzi in the primary of 2002, largely differing over fisheries policy, said Scalzi and he may have had political differences, but that did not translate into personal differences.
The Seafarers Memorial on the Homer Spit might never have happened without Scalzi's support and effort, Seaton said.
"He was a real asset to the community," he said.
Scalzi devoted spare time to civic and community affairs and seemed always to have the time to offer. Among other things, he served on the Seafarers Memorial Committee, the North Pacific Volcano Interpretive Learning Center committee, the Homer Chamber of Commerce and coached Little League and Homer High School football.
In a press statement Friday, Gov. Murkowski said, "Drew contributed greatly to his community, local government, state government and his profession as a fisherman. I am sure his contribution will be remembered long after his is gone."
Reached in Homer, Evelyn Russo, Scalzi's mother-in-law, said the immediate family members were expected to remain in Seattle for several days before returning to Homer. A local service will be planned, likely at the Seafarers Memorial, she said.
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