FAIRBANKS - Former Alaska territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich died early Friday morning, six days after he was badly injured in a fall at his son's San Diego home. He was 94.
Stepovich suffered a serious head injury in the accident and had been hospitalized in a semi-conscious state. His 13 children all traveled to San Diego to say goodbye, said his oldest daughter, Antonia Stepovich Gore.
Stepovich was born to in 1919 at St. Joseph Hospital, the son of an immigrant gold miner from Montenegro. He grew up in Oregon after his family moved away but returned to the Interior after earning his law degree from Notre Dame University and spending a tour in the Navy.
Following three terms in the Alaska Territorial Legislature, Stepovich became the state's youngest and first Alaska-born governor when President Eisenhower appointed him to the position in 1957. He was just 38 years old.
The self-deprecating Republican often claimed the job was the easiest he'd ever had, since he simply needed to be the "messenger boy" for the federal government. But he was a tireless advocate for statehood, constantly traveling the country to lobby for Alaska's admission to the union.
"He didn't toot his own horn, but he worked very hard at it," Stepovich Gore said of the role.
Those efforts included an appearance on "Tonight with Jack Paar," as well as a visit to the game show "What's My Line" that can be seen on YouTube. Stepovich was on the cover of Time magazine in 1958, his portrait appearing in front of a totem pole morphing into a jet airplane and oil rig.
Stepovich faced skepticism even from some of his political allies. Eisenhower initially thought that Alaska would be more useful as a buffer between the U.S. and Russia than as the 49th state. Even when the president warmed to the idea, he had to be convinced that the massive territory shouldn't be split in half before entering the union.
Stepovich was at the center of perhaps the most well-known photo from the statehood era, shown with a broad smile as he held a newspaper with the headline “WE’RE IN” while standing between Eisenhower and Secretary of the Interior Frederick Seaton.
"He was one of the young men in that group that was very involved in statehood and was very convinced that was the right thing for Alaska," Stepovich Gore said.
Stepovich resigned as governor to make a run at the U.S. Senate but lost a narrow race to Ernest Gruening. He returned to Fairbanks to practice law and raise a family with his wife, Matilda.
Fairbanks attorney Charlie Cole met Stepovich in 1955 and said he was a warm family man who would share a smile and conversation with everyone he met.
He recalls dinner at the Stepovich home, where Matilda managed a boisterous group of kids and a steady stream of guests. The children all attended Immaculate Conception School and Monroe Catholic High School, which was just a short walk from their home in Slaterville.
"It was a big, convivial, happy family when you'd go over there," Cole said.
Cole said Stepovich was also an outstanding athlete and attorney. Stepovich would routinely pummel Cole in their weekly handball matches, he said, then head to court to work on a wide variety of colorful cases in post-war Fairbanks.
"He was a formidable trial lawyer," Cole said. "I sometimes think he could convince a jury that black was white."
Stepovich was fondly remembered by Alaska politicians on Friday after word of his death was made public. Gov. Sean Parnell ordered state flags lowered to half-staff.
"His love for our state is a great legacy that will endure for generations of Alaskans," Parnell said in a statement. "A devout family man, the governor will be missed and never forgotten."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski praised Stepovich as a "true family man" and a vital player in Alaska's statehood.
"Today we have lost another link to Alaska’s territorial history, and that leaves a huge hole in my heart," Murkowski stated.
Sen. Mark Begich called Stepovich one of Alaska's "most historic figures."
"His vision and commitment to statehood as well as his role as a proud statesman laid the path for the early success of Alaska, and for that, all Alaskans are grateful," Begich stated.
Stepovich and his wife moved Outside about 30 years ago but returned each summer to visit with friends and family in Fairbanks. Matilda Stepovich died in 2003 at age 81.
Stepovich Gore said the children stayed in regular contact with their father through daily phone calls and regular visits. They arrived in San Diego this week from far-flung points around the U.S. — Florida, Virginia, Washington state and, of course, Alaska — to say goodbye to their father.
"His love of Alaska and identification with Alaska was always very strong. … It was always family, faith and Alaska, on any given day in some order," she said.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.