By all accounts, Dick Eliason was not the kind of guy to get too puffed up about his titles or his power, despite having plenty of both. At Chamber of Commerce luncheons in Sitka, he would introduce himself as Pat’s husband. He was like that during his time in the Capitol, too.
Mary McDowell was a legislative staffer to Eliason during his entire 12 years in the Senate.
“I remember one time being outside of a room where he was meeting with a bunch of students from the district, and one of the students asked him how many staffers were working for him,” she said. “And he said, ‘Well, there are four in the office, but they don’t really work for me, they work with me.'”
Eliason’s legislative career began when he was elected to the state House in 1969. He served there until 1980, minus one term in the early 70s.
When it came to bi-partisanship, Dick Eliason walked the walk. The senate working group in the current Alaska State Legislature is a direct descendent of Dick Eliason’s bi-partisan coalition.
Jim Duncan is now the business manager of the Alaska State Employee Association, and the former Commissioner of Administration under Gov. Tony Knowles. Duncan, a Democrat, served in both the House and the Senate representing Juneau, and could not have been further away from Eliason on the political spectrum.
Nevertheless, he says it was not difficult to lend Eliason support.
“He was a Republican, I was a Democrat. We had other Democrats in that coalition,” Duncan said. “The reason we voted for him for President was because we trusted him, we felt he was fair. He was not always with us on every issue, but he was someone who would listen to you, and he could be reasoned with. The bottom line was that he was doing what he thought was in the best interest of the state of Alaska, and I would agree with him.”
Duncan recalls a prank he and fellow senator Fred Zharoff played on the senate president. The pair, dressed as Jake and Elwood Blues, accosted Eliason in the hallway of the capitol and kissed him on the cheeks. A newspaper photographer captured the image, and it circulated widely.
Duncan says Eliason could roll with any punch.
“He enjoyed that very much, and could take a joke,” Duncan said. “It was meant to be a joke with him, and he took it. He was just that kind of guy: tough when he needed to be tough, who worked for the betterment of the state, someone who everyone enjoyed working with and had great respect for.”
But perhaps his biggest political legacy was passing a law that prohibited fish farms in Alaska in 1989. Dale Kelley is executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.
“Alaskans, led by people like Dick, have worked their entire lives or careers protecting that habitat,” she said. “That’s first and foremost what the ban on salmon farming meant to Alaska, is protecting our watersheds.”
Kelley’s organization represents salmon trollers across the state. In 2006, she nominated Elaison to the Wild Salmon Hall of Fame. But she also says his legacy went beyond fisheries – to rural development issues, coastal issues, and, most importantly she says, to his family.
“His family that he raised, and who chose to stay at home in Alaska and in Sitka and surrounding areas: I think that’s a big statement for any human being to raise a family that loves you and wants to be near you,” Kelley said.
George Eliason is Dick Eliason’s eldest son. He used to go fishing with his dad, and is still a commercial fisherman today. He says he learned everything from his dad, including how to have a sense of humor.
“I remember I fell overboard one time, and he pulled me out of the water, and just said, ‘Well, what the heck were you doing swimming out here?’ We had a good time out on the ocean,” he said.
Eliason's family life wasn’t contained to his own household. When his good friend Stanley died, he checked in with his widow and her children to make sure they were all right. One of those children is Cheryl Westover, now the mayor of Sitka.
“They lived right up Biorka street, about a block and a half, and we got together and played. I don’t remember what the adults did together but all the kids – the Eliason kids, the Westover kids, the Bardens …”
Westover’s not the only one to consider Eliason a second father. So does McDowell, his former legislative aide.
“He wielded a lot of power, but always kept really good perspective as an Alaskan,” she said. “I felt he just really was a statesman.”
Eliason is survived by his wife Pat, his children Greta, George, Ida, Richard Junior and Stan, as well as 12 grandchildren.
KCAW's Robert Woolsey and KTOO's Rosemarie Alexander contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1970, Raven Radio Foundation Inc.