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Veteran Sitka lawmaker Grussendorf dies at 69

SITKA, ALASKA
Ben Grussendorf came to Alaska in the mid-1960s. A high school and college teacher of government by training, he soon became part of governing, spending 20 years in the Alaska House of Representatives.

For three terms, he was Speaker of the House, a job he handled with a blend of seriousness and humor, joking that his ascension into leadership was like the mythical maiden who gets thrown into a volcano to appease the gods.

“And I thought, how would that person feel,” Grussendorf told other members of the House at the time. “And I think I’m very close to understanding her feelings on that. As I look down into this smoldering pit, that’s very potentially volatile, I think I understand.

“But my promise is this: I will very stoically sit here and I will listen to you and I will try to understand you, and I will try to learn from your constructive comments. But at the same time, I reserve the rights in the privacy of my chambers to gnash my teeth and say mean nasty things about you. However, after I do that, I would invite you in and hope that we could come to some type of agreement, and show you my great concern for things that are happening in the state of Alaska here.”

And Grussendorf made good on those words, says Kate Tesar, who served as his chief of staff in the 1980s.

“He was always in his office,” Tesar said. “You could find him at 7:30 in the morning or 7:30 at night. That’s part of the reason for his success with everyone, whether you were in the minority or the majority. He always had time to listen to you, listen to your concerns, and try to make the things that were important to you happen.”

But the long hours did not mean Grussendorf was without a life. He was an avid outdoorsman, who enjoyed fishing, wildlife viewing, hunting, and was often seen around Sitka walking his German shepherd, Spinnaker. Tesar says dogs were part of his life back in the 80s, too.

“During his term as Speaker, we often had a half a dozen dogs in his office. He had a big German shepherd. His first one was named Hooter. Everybody would bring their dogs to the office in the 80s. It was before dogs and everything were banned in the Capitol building. It was a joy being around there every day.”

Grussendorf’s widow, Karen, says her husband served in the legislature during a different time.

“They were so young in the 80s,” she said. “The average age was definitely under 40, which is not the case anymore. They were young people looking for the future of the state.”

Jim Duncan was a Democratic legislator from Juneau in both the House and Senate.

“I considered him a good friend, a tremendous legislator, one who I thought was very fair to everyone involved,” Duncan said. “It’s a real sad day – a real shock to hear that Rep. Grussendorf has passed away. He’ll be missed. He did a great job for Sitka. He did a great job for the state of Alaska.”

After leaving the legislature in 2000, Grussendorf was appointed to the Alaska Board of Game, a seat he was to hold until 2013.

Three years ago, he was involved in amending a proposal before the board that would ban the use of full metal jacket bullets in sport hunting. The original proposal specified only .223 caliber bullets.

“The shooting public has changed,” Grussendorf said in a 2008 interview with KCAW. “We have hunters, and then we have people who like to shoot. Sometimes the shooters also get involved in shooting at a live animal – of course they have the necessary tags and licenses to do it – and that’s where some of our problem comes in.”

Grussendorf wanted to extend the ban to all calibers. He later withdrew the amendment, but he made it clear that he did not want Alaska’s wildlife shot at indiscriminately.

“And what happens with the user of a .223, is, you’re shooting,” he said in 2008. “You’re not picking your shot like you would with another caliber rifle. You’re just spitting out stuff.”

Before his involvement at the state level, Grussendorf was active in Sitka politics: Two terms as mayor, from 1975 until 1979, and he chaired the committee that drafted Sitka’s home rule charter – the document that unified the city and borough in 1971. He also served two terms on the Sitka Assembly.

In addition to his widow, Karen, he’s survived by two children and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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