Another of the authors of the Alaska Constitution, one of a generation of Alaskans who looked always forward and seldom back, former Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill has died at the age of 93.
Niece Marilyn Coghill, now the Episcopal priest in his hometown of Nenana, said he passed peacefully in his sleep.
“Dad was a firm believer in utilizing Alaska’s natural resources to build a strong economy and provide good paying jobs for Alaska,” his son, state Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole said in Wednesday statement. “He had the same passion for Alaska, even at 93.”
One of only two Republicans in the first state Senate in a country owned by Democrats, Jack was part of a massive, philosophical shift from liberal to conservative in the north in modern times even if state spending didn’t always follow the conservative line.
Unhappy with state spending, Jack teamed with the late Gov. Wally Hickel to win office at the start of the 1990s with hopes of shrinking a state bureaucracy both men believed bloated by oil revenues. They didn’t succeed.
A politician who thought the state bureaucracy could be reduced by a quarter with no significant loss to the services provided Alaskans, he ironically passed on the same day Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed an unprecedented reduction in the state budget of about that size.
Many were skeptical that the new governor would have much more success than Jack and Wally in trying to make such a massive cut.
Land of political turmoil
A longtime Republican from the frozen Interior of the state, Jack was at the center of an political firestorm when he joined fellow Republican Wally on the gubernatorial ticket of the Alaska Independence Party in 1990. The dust-up made national news.
“The Alaska Republican Party has been thrown into disarray by the defection of its nominee for lieutenant governor to a third-party ticket led by former Gov. Walter J. Hickel,” the New York Times reported.
As often the case in Alaska political history, the issue was philosophical.
Alaska’s Republican establishment was in chaos after Anchorage Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski, an advocate of abortion rights and a moderate on development, won the gubernatorial primary and refused to commit to reducing the size of state government or change her stand on abortion, according to Claus Naske’s “Alaska: A History.”
A significant segment of the party quickly decamped to support the AIP, a party originally founded around the idea Alaska should secede from the union. The AIP put former Republican state Reps. John Lindauer and Jerry Ward on its ballot.
Neither was thought to have the stature to beat Sturgulewski or Democrat Tony Knowles, a popular former mayor of Anchorage, and fears grew that a Republican split could give Democrats the governor’s office.
Hickel was approached about taking Lindauer’s place on the AIP ballot, but at first rebuffed the advances.
“Post-primary grumblers in the Republican Party who want to place a more conservative candidate for governor on the ballot aren’t getting much cooperation from their favorite nominees,” Brian O’Donoghue, a Fairbanks Daily News reporter at the time and now a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported. “Both former Gov. Wally Hickel and Sen. Jack Coghill say they’ve been asked to engage in last-minute schemes to turn them into gubernatorial candidates. Both said to forget it.”
What happened after that was never fully clear, but Hickel reportedly began to lean toward entering the race and the White House of President George H.W. Bush got involved.
“A spokesman for Mr. Hickel said (White House Chief of Staff John) Sununu made an implied threat to block efforts by Mr. Hickel to build the (Alaska) natural gas pipeline if he quit the Republican Party and ran for governor,” the Times reported.
“Mr. Coghill, who was in the room when the call came from Mr. Sununu, said, ‘He made overtures to Wally that there would be problems from the federal end in going forward with the pipeline.'”
Hickel was not a man known for responding well to threats. As the Secretary of the Interior for President Richard M. Nixon, he’d been advised to keep quiet about his opinions on the Vietnam War. Hickel’s response was to go public with the opinion Nixon should listen to those telling him to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.
Hickel was promptly fired. He returned to his businesses in Alaska where the young man from Kansas had gone from penniless to millionaire in what was then a growth-oriented frontier state.
Jack Coghill came from a different starting place than Hickel having spent his entire life in Alaska. Jack’s father started the general store
in Nenana, which Marilyn now manages, in the early 1900s.
But Jack and Wally shared a common belief of an Alaska going “North to the Future,” as the state motto proclaimed. And the only way they saw to get there was to open up the country and develop its resources. They viewed a lot of state bureaucracy as little more than an impediment to that goal.
Wally in his first term as Alaska governor in the 1960s had pushed ahead the “Hickel Highway” to the first oil finds on Alaska’s North Slope. Coming on the eve of the rise of the American environmental movement, it quickly become infamous.
“During road construction, Jane Pender of the Anchorage Daily News had commented, ‘Seen from the air, it’s an ugly slash that winds its way across the virgin silence of Alaska’s vast Interior…” a National Park Service history records. “Today, even though natural forces have blurred the original
roadbed, it still can be seen from an airplane, and people and wildlife still use it as a convenient travel route.”
Ugly is a hugely subject world. One person’s ugly is another’s beautiful.
Wally and Jack saw that muddy line in the tundra as the arrow pointing to Alaska’s future.
To the last of his days, Marilyn said Wednesday, “Uncle Jack” maintained his belief in the need to build an economy to support the next generation of Alaskans. It was an interest he shared with Wally.
So, too, a passion for politics.
“He and Luann (son John’s wife) always fought over the television because he wanted to watch ‘Gavel to Gavel’ 24 hours a day,” Marilyn said. She remembered that when President Donald Trump named Coloradoan Neil Gorsuch, an Episcopalian like Jack, to the Supreme Court, Uncle Jack was fascinated.
“He stood in his walker right in front of the television for hours,” she said. “He was still watching everything going on” in the world and the state.
Wally and Jack served only one term in Juneau during which they regularly battled with environmentalists. The biggest fight might have come over an effort to build a road from the tiny, Copper River community of Chitina along the bed of the long-abandoned Copper River and Northwestern Railway to the city of Cordova on the Gulf of Alaska coast.
The road made it 30 miles to the Tiekel River before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut down work because the state had pushed dirt in the naturally muddy Copper River without a permit. The project was eventually abandoned, but the pioneer road Hickel and Coghill had started for years after its construction drew large number of Alaskans to the area to dipnet salmon from the muddy flow that rages through Wood Canyon.
A landslide closed the road in the mid-2000s and the state refused to rebuild it, saying it was too unsafe. Individual dipnetters, however, hacked out a four-wheeler trail that remains in use to this day.
Their thinking was in line with that of Jack: get ‘er done.
An Alaska life
Jack didn’t just live in Alaska, he lived Alaska’s history.
He learned to count, he said in a video history that can be found at 360 North, by tallying the muskrat hides bartered at the family store in the 1930s. He became the Nenana undertaker in his teens because there was no one else willing to take the job.
“….Thirty-seven graves later…I ended my career when they passed enough laws that you couldn’t do that any more,” he said. “You had to be a mortician.
“Did a lot of things when I was 15 you know. I had to witness when old Bill Mosher died. Ms. Hyde had to have witnesses and of course I’d already been the undertaker two times when Bill…died.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, he got shipped around the state to try to help organize supply depots to assist Lend-Lease airplanes being flown west across the state to what was then the Soviet Union.
Once out of the service he went back to Nenana and took over the store after his father died, married a woman from Fairbanks and together they raised six children.
His political career started there when he was appointed to the local school board and then ran for the office because no one else wanted it.
“And in those days why you didn’t have a restriction that you couldn’t hold a local seat like you can today,” he said. “So when I was in the Territorial Legislature, I was still on the school board. When I was in the Constitutional Convention they called me Schoolhouse Johnny in those days.”
In 1951, he got lucky and won the Nenana Ice Classic, an Alaska institution. He and wife Frances invested $1,800 of the $18,000 in prize money in a saw mill and then milled the lumber to build a 20-room roadhouse with a restaurant in Nenana.
Getting things done individually in the Alaska territorial days wasn’t hard, but getting anything done collectively was difficult. The Territorial Legislature needed approval from Washington, D.C., to do anything. The burdensome paperwork made Jack an early advocate for Statehood.
Picked as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention – which convened in Fairbanks as a compromise between capital-move advocates in Anchorage and the Southeast Alaska supporters of keeping the capital in Juneau – Coghill had a unique memory of the journey there:
“….At that time in 1955, we already had the Tote Road between (Nenana) and Fairbanks and it would take us five hours to drive from here to Fairbanks. And you had to take a chain saw with you because it was only a Tote Road, just the width of a D8 Cat” and trees regularly blew down across the road.
It would be more than 15 years before a roadway was completed between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and parts of it would still be gravel when it was officially dedicated as the George Parks Highway in 1975.
At the convention, Coghill found himself a little-government Republican in a state then dominated by Democrats. Most people didn’t take the convention seriously, he added, noting that the Seattle fish processors that then owned the Alaska fishing business didn’t even show up to lobby the delegates.
That helped the convention set the stage for abolishing the fish traps then in disfavor in Alaska because of the economic power they gave Seattle over the state’s fisheries.
When Coghill was elected to the state Senate in 1959, he was one of only two Republicans in the body. Alaska then was radically different from the red state it is now.
Coghill remembers the first legislatures struggling to find ways to finance a state that could offer little in the way of public services because the income tax on the small population didn’t produce much revenue.
That didn’t change until oil started flowing through the TransAlaska Pipeline System in the 1970s and Alaska boomed. By then, Coghill was back home in Nenana where he served as mayor for 23 years, the longest run by a mayor in state history.
“…The most satisfying time was my tenure as mayor because it was local,” he said, “because you were affecting people on a local basis and I think that my most frustrating time was being lieutenant governor.
“You couldn’t get anything done. I mean bureaucracy had gotten to the point where it was” out of control.
“The first year I was in there when I was still in favor, you know, we put these dot charts together to reorganize state government,” he said. “And the charts were color-coded so that it showed the different categories of people and how you could cut through all of that…And I figured that we could take 25 percent…of government and do away with it if you had the will.”