KOTZEBUE — The Ravn Alaska terminal in Kotzebue was filled Monday morning with a typical group of travelers. There were men in hoodies and Carhartts talking about guns and sleds, families comforting teary babies and some people just hoping to get home sooner than later.
There was hardly any talk about the state’s biggest event to be held in just a few hours 45 air miles away: The inauguration of the Gov. Mike Dunleavy in the village of Noorvik, which would mark the state’s first swearing-in ceremony above the Arctic circle.
But Alaska has a way of bringing people together.
Before long, those families, hunters and travelers were joined by soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and his family. Meyer, dressed in a blue-and-gold kuspuk, was checking his phone, trying to figure out just where the plane carrying Dunleavy, Dunleavy’s family and Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman was. The original plan had been for the governor to get to Noorvik, the hometown of his wife, Rose, by snowmachine, but the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Alaska’s Southcentral region changed those plans. The new plan was to fly directly from Anchorage to Noorvik.
And now another very Alaska element—poor weather—had upended the plan again.
The governor-elect’s plane was circling Noorvik, attempting to make a landing amid dense fog, but the clock's ticking toward the constitutionally mandated noon transfer of power quickly made it a decision between an in-flight inauguration and returning to Kotzebue to perform the ceremony.
“It’s so Alaskan,” Meyer joked, before adding that he would prefer to just do the ceremony in Kotzebue and travel to Noorvik for the community banquet once the weather cleared. “I don’t want anyone to take any chances.”
And that’s what happened.
Around 10:30 a.m., with nearly two hours until sunrise, Dunleavy’s plane touched down and he walked into the crowded Bering Air terminal.
As staff at Kotzebue High School set to work readying the gym to host the inauguration, Dunleavy took a moment to greet travelers, shake hands and chat with a few familiar faces.
An hour later, the high school students had gathered in the gym — with a reminder to behave — and staff hurried to figure out how to broadcast the event statewide. A hush fell over the gym when Dunleavy walked into the auditorium with his family at his sides.
“It’s not a funeral, guys,” Dunleavy called out to the kids as he crossed the basketball court to take the stage.
In a day filled with the unexpected, the actual swearing-in of Dunleavy went off without a hitch.
Kotzebue officials — who had just an hour before been going about their day — welcomed him with grace, students led the Pledge of Allegiance and singers from the audience joined in for a rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee.”
Roetman, the presiding judge in Kotzebue, first swore in Meyer as lieutenant governor and then, about 20 minutes before noon, swore in Dunleavy as the state's 12th person to serve as governor.
Dunleavy, a Republican, then gave a speech that painted a picture of opportunity for the large, sparsely populated Alaska, with new resource development and jobs for young people like the job his daughter has at Red Dog Mine just north of Kotzebue.
He recognized the work and sacrifice made by his predecessor, former Gov. Bill Walker, who declined to attend in order to oversee the state’s recovery from the earthquake down to the last hour of his governorship.
But most of all, Dunleavy focused on his ties to rural Alaska.
“You have a friend in the governor’s office. You have somebody who hasn’t just visited rural Alaska, hasn’t just read about rural Alaska,” he said. “When I first came to Alaska in 1983, I went directly to rural Alaska — I had opportunities to go to big cities, I didn’t want to — I said I wanted to go to rural Alaska and see what it’s like. … I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
Dunleavy said he made lifelong friends and, most importantly, met his future wife while using the excuse of a basketball trip to visit Noorvik.
He pledged to never forget the problems that rural Alaska feels so acutely, promising attention to public safety, the economy and to public education.
It served as a stiff rebuttal of accusations that the incoming governor would shutter rural schools and bring back the boarding schools that caused so much cultural pain and trauma for Alaska Natives.
"Let me clarify something," Dunleavy said. "During my campaign there was a misunderstanding that I said something about closing schools in rural Alaska. Nothing could be further from the truth. My kids went to school in rural Alaska, my wife went to school in rural Alaska, I taught in rural Alaska,” he said. “If anything, I want to strengthen the education system in rural Alaska."
After the ceremony, the 6-foot-7-inch governor shook hands, gave hugs and caught up with the many familiar faces of Kotzebue residents who hurried over to see the state's new governor, a man with close ties to the community. If not for the narrow weather window and hundreds more waiting in Noorvik, it appeared that Dunleavy would have been happy to stay and catch up all afternoon.
And faster than the inauguration came together, Dunleavy and company departed to Noorvik for a feast many days in the works.
Afterward, a group of high school girls gathered in the Kotzebue High School’s common space as a group of boys were busy with horseplay.
“I thought that was cool,” said senior Tharissa Thomas. “He’s really tall.”
The girls laughed in agreement.
“I’m pretty sure he was the vice principal when my mom was in school,” Thomas added. “He’s like an Alaska celebrity.”
Sophomore Easter Foster thought a moment before sharing her thoughts on the whirlwind of events.
“He started off as something small and became something big,” she said. “That’s really cool.”
Freelance writer Matt Buxton is a former Daily News-Miner politics reporter now living in Anchorage.
This story has been corrected to indicate the correct magnitude of the Anchorage earthquake.