December 24 is a special day in Alaska’s history. Fifty years ago, on Christmas Eve in 1968, Gov. Wally Hickel appointed a young veteran and attorney named Ted Stevens to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. That proved to be an exceptional choice, and a great man would go on to become one of the longest-serving Republican senators of all time, the “Alaskan of the Century,” and a beloved icon all across our state.
To be sure, even before Stevens came to the Senate, he had already played a key role in shaping Alaska’s future. Working at the Department of the Interior under then-Secretary Fred Seaton, Stevens helped convince Congress to admit Alaska to the union. After returning to his adopted home, he served in our state Legislature, where he was chosen to be House majority leader.
Alaska was different back then. The early years of statehood weren’t easy for us. A federal freeze had led to a halt on permits for the use of federal land. Foreign fishing fleets were decimating fish stocks just miles from our shores. Mail service was sporadic and undependable. Most rural Alaskans lived in poverty, with access to few medical doctors and only “honey buckets” for sanitation.
Decades later, Alaska has come a long way. And while that is due to the tireless work of thousands of individuals, perhaps no one did more to improve our state and shape its future than the man whose memory we celebrate today.
During his time in the Senate, Stevens lived by a simple motto: “To hell with politics, do what’s right for Alaska.” And no matter what issue came before the chamber, he always did exactly that.
In 1971, he helped shape the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which settled most outstanding land claims for Alaska Natives and provided new opportunities for economic development.
A few years later, he ensured Senate passage of a bill authorizing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, unlocking our vast reserves on the North Slope, establishing a foundation for our state economy, and enabling the creation of the Permanent Fund that provides annual dividends to our residents.
Another major achievement was a broad fisheries law that Stevens worked on with a colleague from Washington, and which today bears their names as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, protecting and sustaining our marine resources within the 200-mile limit.
As an appropriator, Stevens worked with the Alaska delegation to steer much-needed resources to our still-young state, helping to build critical infrastructure, provide essential air service to remote communities, and generally improve our quality of life.
Through their work, along with the work of many others, most Alaskans now enjoy a modern communications system. More than 170 rural communities have health aides. Modern sewer and water systems serve more and more Alaskans every day. A network of transportation systems ties Alaskans together, and bypass mail helps keep postage rates down.
Stevens also made his mark at the national level. He was a staunch proponent of our armed forces and national defense. He advanced telecommunications policy. And his legacy also includes a number of measures that he is not always associated with, including Title IX for women’s equality in sports, the Amateur Sports Act, and the reauthorization of a program that provides funding for physical education.
I was honored to intern for Stevens and to later serve alongside him in the Senate. He was both a mentor and a dear friend. He was also a remarkable leader whose dedication and commitment to our state was nothing less than extraordinary. He loved Alaska. He never failed to go to the mat for us, often while wearing his iconic Hulk tie. And it is clear that without him, Alaska would be a much different place.
It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. As we mark the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the Senate, we recognize that we stand much higher today because of Sen. Stevens and his tremendous work for Alaska.