SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Remembering Uncle Ted



August 12, 2010

Ketchikan, Alaska - I will always remember Ted Stevens asking me to show him my "new toys."

In the early 1990s, when I worked at KRBD, Senator Stevens would always visit the radio station on his thrice yearly visits to Ketchikan.

jpg Ted Stevens

Deanna Garrison of KRBD interviews U.S. Senator Ted Stevens during his visit to Ketchikan in October of 2004.
SitNews File Photo by Dick Kauffman

Now, public broadcasting is not exactly the favorite forum of old "conservative" war horses like the Senator we all called "Uncle Ted." But Sen. Stevens loved public broadcasting.

Because like so many other things that we have in Ketchikan, he was responsible for it.

Although it probably would surprise the anti-Stevens crowd out there, he was a technology junky. That's why I was shocked when late in his last term, the liberal blogosphere made a big "who-haw" out of the fact that Stevens couldn't really explain how the internet works. He may have been an old-timer, but he knew more about technology than a lot of us whippersnappers.

Rather, I remember the two of us poking our heads under cabinets in the air room so he could look at the wiring and remark on the "new fangled" electronics that was operating the station. He was excited about KRBD's new equipment that year because he had pushed through a federal budget "earmark" just so that several of the public radio stations in Alaska could get those "new toys."

He was definitely a vacuum tube kind of guy, but I bet that if he was on a desert island with a bunch of wire, he'd have eventually been able to string together something to get a message out.

Stevens loved "technology" so much that he was willing to buck his own party time after time to make sure that public broadcasting got its funding and - even better - Alaska had a world class radio and public broadcasting system.

It was he - in the late 1970s and early 1980s - who funneled several million dollars to the state to make sure that many of the villages and smaller towns - like Ketchikan - had public radio and television stations.

And woe unto those who tried to cut funding to public broadcasting. Back in the late 1990s when the Republicans controlled Congress, some folks in the Senate tried to "zero out" public broadcasting. Stevens - then head of the Senate Appropriations Committee - essentially threatened to "zero out" billions of dollars in federal capital projects in their districts. Public broadcasting funding continued.

That, of course, is simply a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Senator Stevens steered to the Ketchikan area over the years.

It is difficult to walk down the street in Ketchikan and not see something that he was directly responsible for. The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, the downtown docks, the electrical grid, the water and sewer systems were all things that came about with the help of federal funding. For that matter, the streets themselves have been paved and repaved over the years with primarily federal transportation dollars that he and Rep. Don Young have provided.

Everyone knows about the debate over the "Bridge to Nowhere" and Sen. Steven's strong advocacy for Ketchikan's hardlink to Gravina. But without Senator Stevens there might not have been a Gravina airport in the first place as he pushed for the original federal funding in the late 1960s and then assured Ketchikan would continue have jet service from Alaska Airlines over the years by supporting a federal subsidy for the service.

I could go on and on about all the things Stevens did for Ketchikan, but those are all pretty well known. If Ketchikan ever bestowed honorary citizenship on anyone, it was the Senior Senator who spent every Fourth of July - and many other days - with us for longer than anyone can remember. He could have spent time elsewhere in the state - where there were more votes - but that wasn't what he did.

Of course he was occasionally controversial. I'm kinda sad that I never saw the legendary Stevens temper. As close as I got was during a radio call in show in which a listener asked Stevens if "losing his temper made it harder for him to get things done for Alaska."

He wrinkled his brow, jutted out his chin, and intoned in all deadly, apparently angry, seriousness. "I never lose my temper, ma'am. I know where it is at all times."

And then he winked at me.

I had to turn down my microphone to keep from laughing.

And for all his infamous "Incredible Hulk" bluster, there was another side.

Several years ago, we (a group of local politicos) were supposed to meet with Senator Stevens in his office in Washington. We had waited a couple of days to get in to see him - we wanted face time with him and not his staff. When you went to DC, you wanted to "see the elephant." You wanted to meet directly with Uncle Ted, no matter how busy he was with other matters. And you usually did.

This time, we waited in his conference room for some time. Then I got up to go outside for a minute. At the end of the hall, I saw him walking with his "brother" Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Stevens' closest friend in Congress despite the fact he was a Democrat. Stevens had his arm around Inouye's shoulder and their heads were bowed. Inouye's wife had died only a few days previously.

Senator Stevens never made it to our "meeting" but that was okay.

Ironically, one of my favorite memories of Senator Stevens involves a plane. Because of his desire to spend as much time as possible outside of the Alaskan metropolises he probably spent more time in small planes than just about anyone in Alaska who wasn't a commercial pilot.

He once famously said that he expected to die in a plane crash. And in 1978, he nearly died in a crash at the Anchorage airport that killed his first wife, Ann and five of the seven passengers on board.

Yet, there he was a just couple years later, in the early 1980s, climbing into yet another small plane for yet another bumpy trip from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales for yet another community visit. I - then enjoying life as a cub reporter for the Daily News - offered to let him get into the Beaver ahead of me, figuring he would want a seat toward the back - as I would have if I had just been nearly killed in one of the danged things.
But, no, he shooed me on ahead. He wanted to sit in the co-pilot's seat. Before the plane revved for takeoff, I could hear him asking the pilot about one of the dials on the instrument panel. Must have been something new since the days when he was wrestling cargo planes over the Himalayas in World War II.

Stevens almost always rode in the co-pilot's seat on his flights. But initial information from the fatal crash is that someone else was that seat when the plane took off from Lake Nerka. And that person survived the crash.

It probably didn't make a difference where he sat on the plane because there apparently was no pattern to the fatalities. As it almost always the case with Alaskan plane crashes, fate was along for the ride in an empty seat.

In a better world, I imagine Uncle Ted getting into the co-pilot seat and pointing at some new dial on the panel and giving the pilot a big thumbs up. Then the plane clears the bad weather and the flight is uneventful like the hundreds before it.

Below him, Alaska spools out to the horizon, endless and wonderful.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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