Remembering the First Lady of Bristol Bay

Bella Hammond, a daughter of Bristol Bay, maintained her setnet site, even while her husband Jay served as governor of Alaska. Photo courtesy of Heidi Hammond

By Rhonda McBride
For The Cordova Times

“I was born in 1932, so I’m an artifact,” Bella Hammond wisecracked as she stood in front of the iconic log home her husband, the late Gov. Jay Hammond, built on the shores of Lake Clark. It’s about 180 miles from Anchorage, and there are no roads to get there.

That visit to the Hammond homestead was back in July of 2017, when I had a chance to spend an afternoon with the former first lady. I was struck by how proud she was to live alone in the wilderness, to enjoy the warmth of her cast iron stove, the same stove that Jay stoked every morning with wood he cut himself, to make coffee for Bella – all in “the interest of domestic tranquility,” he was fond of saying.

Picture a former governor bringing coffee to Bella in bed, as she bellowed, “Coffee. Coffee. Where’s my coffee?” It was a morning ritual for the couple, an ongoing drama in which Jay portrayed himself the victim of an exceedingly demanding wife, who delighted in humiliating him in games of Scrabble.

“Jay once told me he was glad I wasn’t a doormat,” Bella said. “I used to think every once in a while, I’d have to bring him down a peg or two.”

It was not long after my visit to the Hammond homestead that Bella had a stroke — and her daughter insisted she move to her home in Anchorage. She died on Feb. 29, her death overshadowed by the growing coronavirus threat. But with or without the pandemic, Bella probably would have wanted a quiet exit. She was an intensely private person.

Even so, it seems Memorial Day weekend is a good time to remember Bella Hammond and a life well-lived, a compass for Alaskans as they navigate the troubled waters ahead.

Bella knew something about epidemics and the importance of medical care. Her mother, Lydia Snyder Gardiner, was one of more than a hundred children orphaned in 1919, when the Spanish flu swept through Bristol Bay. About the time she met her future husband, she spilt her time between two jobs, as a waitress and as an assistant to the doctor at the Clarks Point Cannery. Although the doctor kept her extremely busy, she said she loved the work — because there was no other doctor in the area at the time, and he helped so many people.

Along with her three brothers and two sisters, Bella was raised by a Yup’ik mother and Scottish father. She grew up in Kanakanak, near Dillingham — but when she was about 11, her family sent her to spend winters with a schoolteacher in Aleknagik, who was in poor health and needed help with the chores. She also found time to learn how to mush a dog team. Bella said these early experiences made her an independent spirit, one that charmed a future governor. Not long after she graduated as her high school valedictorian, they married.

Bella Hammond as a young woman on a hill above Clark’s Point in Bristol Bay. Photo courtesy of Heidi Hammond

“I thought he was a nice-looking young man,” she said. “He apparently thought I was a nice- looking young girl, and we just kind of hit it off.”

But the attraction involved more than looks. For his part, Hammond liked to joke that he was a “victim of serendipity.” Bella said she learned early in their relationship that humor was Jay’s constant companion — and from the beginning, they were a threesome.

Hammond came to the state shortly after World War II and the skills he learned as a fighter pilot landed him a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service as a predator control officer.

Bella said she fell in love with her husband when Jay slipped and fell while carrying a cake for her parents’ anniversary. The box sailed into the air and the cake landed upside down, but they managed to put it back in the box, with her parents none the wiser.

“Fortunately, the frosting had set,” she said. “And we both got hysterical.”

That sense of humor and love of word play came in handy when Hammond went into politics. Bella maintained her independence. While raising her daughters Heidi and Dana, she worked a commercial setnet fishing permit on the beaches of Naknek and tended to her huge gardens at the homestead.

Gardening was a passion she brought with her when she moved to Juneau, the first Alaska Native to occupy the governor’s mansion. She recalled how strange it was to live in a place with so many rooms.

“I enjoyed the house, after I got to know it,” she said. “I used to work in the garden, and that was the fun part for me — because people who didn’t know me thought I was a hired hand.”

Sometimes they would complain about the governor to her.

But Hammond usually kept those complaints to herself. She said she tried her best to give her husband a sense of peace — so when he talked with her about the issues of the day, she restrained herself, because she didn’t want to add to his burden.

Former Senate President Rick Halford believes Bella downplayed her role in Juneau — that she was in reality a sounding board for the governor, something he was unaware of when he served in the Legislature and would visit Hammond at the governor’s house.

“He talked and she listened. She was very polite and very friendly and everything but just very matter of fact,” Halford said. But after the governor’s death, he saw a different side of Bella.

“I just truly got to adore her for all of her own reasons,” he said.

It was Pebble mine that brought Halford and Hammond closer together. He says he was struck by the power of the letters she had written to fight the mine.

“Jay had a way with words, but Bella had a way with words too — but her way was much more simple. And it was eloquent in its simplicity,” Halford said, calling the couple a great combination at a pivotal time in the state’s history. “Jay Hammond presided over the greatest growth in Alaska’s history, which would have been an absolute disaster if he hadn’t been there.”

Bella Hammond says she worried about the heavy load her husband carried — and the only time she intervened was to ask his chief of staff to make sure her husband got some time off in the summer to return to Lake Clark and recharge.

As First Lady, Bella continued to work her setnet permit in the summer. She was featured in a 1977 People Magazine article with the headline, “You can take the governor’s wife out of Naknek, but when the salmon runs, so does Bella Hammond.”

In her husband’s second term, Bella was diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s when intense rounds of Scrabble became a nightly ritual. Although her husband called her an “insufferable winner” and claimed she beat him three games out of four, he apparently humbled himself, perhaps because he knew she needed to feel like a winner to fight her battle against cancer.

Former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond and Bella as a young couple dating after World War II Photo courtesy of Heidi Hammond

Hammond said she felt terrible about the timing of her illness.

“He had the weight of the world on his shoulders,” she said. “Why does he need this on top of that?”

Hammond says her husband thought of quitting, but she wouldn’t let him and she carried on her duties as First Lady, surprised at how Alaskans embraced her after she went public with her story.

After she lost her hair from chemotherapy, she put on a wig and became an advocate for breast cancer treatment and prevention. She also created the First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year award, a tradition that continues today.

But for the most part, Bella kept a low political profile until after her husband’s death, partly to protect his legacy of the Permanent Fund Dividend program. But also, the two had a shared love for the land and taking care of it.

On the day I visited her at Lake Clark. a postcard perfect day, it was easy to understand the source of that passion.

“I think people need this sort of existence to stay sane,” she said as she pointed to the lake and the mountains in the backdrop. “A true Alaskan loves his state and wants to take care of it. Jay personified that in every way.”

On that visit she told me that sometimes she would hear sounds in their cabin that made her think her husband was still at there and would carry on conversations with him in her dreams. She would wake-up, feeling comforted by the warmth of his presence.

Now she will be close again. Her daughter, Heidi, says sometime this summer, family and a few close friends will gather for a private service at the Lake Clark homestead to lay her to rest next to her husband — two Alaskans united again in their love for each other and our state.

Rhonda McBride is a longtime Alaska journalist, who has hosted public affairs programs and political debates.