Pioneer Alaskan, stepmother of last territorial governor, dies at 97

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Vuka Stepovich, who in her later years hiked the Chilkoot Trail, floated Alaska rivers and waded in the Arctic Ocean, died Wednesday at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. She was 97.

Family and friends from around the nation remembered the stepmother of Alaska's last territorial governor as a gracious person who loved Alaska.

''She was the outdoor type and that kept her healthy for years,'' said former-Gov. Mike Stepovich. ''She loved the creeks and she loved Alaska. She was very influential in my life.''

Born in Risan, Yugoslavia, Vuka Stepovich married ''Wise Mike'' Stepovich in 1928 and moved with him the next year to Alaska, where he ran some gold mining and real estate enterprises.

The couple had four children -- Michael Leo, Alexander, Nada and Ellen -- and raised them at their homes on Fairbanks Creek and on Cushman Street. The elder Mike Stepovich had another son, Mike Anthony Stepovich, from a previous marriage. The son spent summers with Vuka and his father and grew up to become Alaska's last territorial governor.

''Wise Mike'' Stepovich, 30 years older than his wife, died in 1945. Vuka was left to raise the children and manage the family concerns. By that time they had moved to Saratoga, Calif., where they had a farm and orchards.

The family barn was a gathering place for friends of the Stepovich children. Dubbed ''Step's Barn,'' it was available to all the young people for social activities. Vuka became famous for the Sunday dinners she prepared for the large crowds and for the hospitality she showed.

She made such an impression on the fraternity brothers and sorority sisters of her children when they attended San Jose State University that in 1992 those friends met and established a $100,000 endowment in her name.

Granddaughter Laura Stepovich Tramonte of Falls Church, Va., said that to Vuka there was no such word as ''stranger.''

''She welcomed everyone to her home,'' she said. ''She instilled Alaska history and the importance of family in all her grandchildren.''

Vuka flew to Fairbanks from Saratoga every summer, including this one. She was living in a downtown condominium and at her 1938-built home at Fish Creek, 35 miles from town, at the time of her death.

Services are set for 3 p.m. Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

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