The curtain closed on a chapter in Alaska history last week. Michael Anthony Stepovich, known as “Mike,” died on Friday – Valentine’s Day – at the age of 94. He was the last surviving territorial governor of Alaska.
Born at St. Joseph Hospital in Fairbanks on March 12, 1919, Stepovich was the son of a gold miner from Montenego who had come north like other gold rush stampeders, And although he grew up in Oregon, Stepovich came back to Alaska and made a name for himself in the territory.
After he earned a law degree at Notre Dame, and served with the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to Alaska and set up a law office in Fairbanks. As politics heated with statehood talk following the war, he tossed his hat in the ring for the Alaska Territorial Legislature.
He ran as a Republican and won a house seat in 1950. Then in 1952, he was elected to the territorial senate.
Five years later, Stepovich made history when U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the office of territorial governor – he became the youngest, 38, and the first Alaska-born governor of the Great Land.
Stepovich was a staunch supporter of statehood for Alaska and worked tirelessly toward that end. He traveled constantly across the country lobbying for Alaska’s admission to the union. He appeared on “Tonight with Jack Paar,” the TV show “What’s My Line,” and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1958 standing in front of a totem pole.
The young governor met often with Eisenhower, who was not keen on the idea of Alaska becoming a state. But Stepovich, along with other political leaders in the territory, eventually changed the president’s mind about the issue.
There probably was no one happier than Stepovich when the U.S. Congress finally voted to allow Alaska to become a state on June 30, 1958. But since the territory still had to elect a U.S. congressman, two senators and a governor, Alaska’s official entry to the union was on Jan. 3, 1959.
After three unsuccessful political campaigns – one for the U.S. Senate and two for governor of Alaska, Stepovich returned to his law practice and eventually retired to Oregon in 1978. His wife, Matilda, died at 81 in 2003. He is survived by his 13 children.