Toward the end of 2002, former Gov. Jay Hammond wrote an open letter to all Alaskans in which he said: “Several years ago I had a premonition I’d reach the end of the trail in 2002, my 80th year.”
Fortunately for all Alaskans, Hammond was with us a few more years involved in making Alaska a better place for everyone until the very end. His death Tuesday leaves a hole as big as the Last Frontier itself in countless hearts.
As long as Jay Hammond was alive, there was hope that Alaskans could and would do it differently than it had been done elsewhere.
One reason was because he didn’t believe that conservation and development were mutually exclusive, and he was able to champion both successfully and sincerely. He believed good stewardship would mean that all Alaskans, not just a few, would benefit from resource development. It was that core belief that gave birth to the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Although the dividend program has its fair share of critics, Hammond’s role in the creation of the permanent fund and its dividends qualifies him for sainthood in many Alaskans’ eyes.
Hammond will be remembered in countless ways: accidental statesman he entered politics reluctantly, but that’s likely what made him so successful at the job; political icon it can be argued that he has influenced the fabric of Alaska more than any other person; bush pilot; commercial fisherman; poet and author; visionary; an Alaskan’s Alaskan.
Hammond would likely describe himself far more simply.
In his letter to Alaskans back in 2002, he thanked “the Good Lord for having grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauling me from the dark side into the light of His saving grace”; his wife of more than 50 years, Bella, and “all other family members who have helped burnish my life to bedazzling luster.”
He went on to write: “Lastly, I want to thank all Alaskans for the privilege of governing the finest of all 50 states. For whatever successes I might have had and for failures seemingly largely forgotten, I owe each of you an immense debt of gratitude. You made me look good in spite of myself a true ‘victim’ of serendipity.”
Hammond didn’t want his letter to sound “like some discordant swan song.”
“Instead,” he wrote, “it was composed to convey the exaltation I feel for being the luckiest man I’ve ever known, alive or dead.
“So don’t cry for me, Alaska. Cry for those who have not received the measure of faith, family and friends I’ve been allotted.
“As I say in the closing words of one of my books: ‘Truly, my cup runneth over. And though that cup may be a bit chipped, cracked and dented, I’d not trade its content for any libation the fates have decanted since time began.’”
Alaskans’ tears this week aren’t for Hammond, but for those he left behind and this place that he loved.
The best tribute that could be given him would be heeding his words from an interview with Alaska magazine in 2002: “It’s still the best state in my view, and it will continue to be if we don’t tread too heavily on it.”
‘‘A novelist writing a story about Alaska couldn’t come up with a better stereotype of what a governor should be in this state. Here he was, a professional guide, a hunter, an outdoorsman, a fisherman, and to top it off he was a poet and a writer. Heck, that’s what everybody would like to be in Alaska.’’
former Alaska House Speaker Ben Grussendorf
‘‘He was an incredibly good governor because he was a good listener and he wanted to do what was right, and not the first thing that came to his head. Jay was a very honorable man with high standards of principle and morality.’’
Former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer
‘‘I think he left us a sense of what Alaska is all about. He was a great man.’’
Former legislator Jay Kerttula
"Everybody has always looked up to him as being a straight shooter."
Homer Rep. Paul Seaton
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