Report from USA Today
Hickel dies at 90
ANCHORAGE (AP) — Walter J. Hickel, twice Alaska's
governor and an Interior secretary fired by President
Richard Nixon after objecting to the treatment of
Vietnam War protesters, died Friday. He was 90.
Hickel died of natural causes at Horizon House, an
assisted living facility in Anchorage, according to
longtime Hickel assistant Malcolm Roberts.
Hickel was dismissed from his Interior post in late
1970, several months after he wrote Nixon a letter
critical of the president's handling of student
protests following the National Guard shootings at
Kent State and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
"I believe this administration finds itself today
embracing a philosophy which appears to lack
appropriate concern for the attitude of a great mass
of Americans our young people," began the letter,
which helped stir the national debate about the
growing generational rift over the Vietnam War.
When Hickel was fired in November 1970, Nixon
spokesman Ron Ziegler said Nixon took the action
because his relationship with Hickel lacked
"essential elements of mutual confidence."
Hickel had never held elected office when he upset
two-term Democrat Gov. William Egan in 1966.
Hickel resigned in 1969 to become Interior
secretary with the Nixon administration where he
quickly made national headlines as the
environmental movement began to take root in
Hickel imposed stringent cleanup regulations on oil
companies and water polluters after an oil rig
explosion off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. He
also fought to save the Everglades from being
destroyed by developers and advocated for making
Earth Day a national holiday.
An "Alaska boomer" with complex views on
environmentalism and developing the state's oil-
rich resources, Hickel railed against "locking up" the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling and
used settlement money from the Exxon Valdez oil
spill lawsuit to help repair Prince William Sound.
He frequently described Alaska as an "owner state"
and advocated that the state's wild frontier should
be developed responsibly to preserve its value.
Days before he was fired by Nixon, Hickel had told
CBS' "60 Minutes" that he would not quit the Interior
post under pressure. He said he would only go
away "with an arrow in my heart, not a bullet in my
Hickel's political career started in the early 1950s as
a crusader for Alaska statehood, both at home and
in Washington. He was also involved in the Alaska
Native Claims Settlement Act which helped pave the
way for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Hickel's was a quintessential Alaska rags-to-riches
story. Born in Kansas, he arrived nearly penniless in
the small city of Anchorage in 1940, taking
advantage of the city's rapid growth following World
War II to build a multimillion-dollar construction
and real-estate fortune.
"I used to think about all the great countries of the
world where I might want to go, because there was
no room or opportunity in Kansas for me to do the
things I wanted to do," he wrote in his 1971 book,
"Who Owns America."
Through the years, Hickel never lost the "can-do"
attitude that made him a rich man, nor did he stop
thinking about ways Alaska could further develop its
He also never quite got out of politics. In 1990, at
age 71 and after several unsuccessful gubernatorial
bids, Hickel won the job a second time.
But his four years as governor were marked by
frequent run-ins with legislators put off by his
sometimes autocratic style and with
environmentalists critical of his unabashed support
for natural resource development. His backing of a
drinking water pipeline to California became a
metaphor for his love affair with big construction
projects and a target of criticism from political
With his popularity sagging, Hickel chose to not run
for re-election in 1994 and Democrat Tony Knowles
was elected. Hickel returned to Anchorage to run his
business, while also serving as head of the
Northern Forum, an international group addressing
Hickel remained interested in politics, and endorsed
a 2010 gubernatorial candidate during an October
2009 news conference.
Hickel also was an early supporter of former Alaska
Gov. Sarah Palin during her campaign in 2006.
However, that support waned after she became
Republican John McCain's running mate in the 2008
In a September 2009 guest column in the Anchorage
Daily News, he decried what he said was her p
enchant for partisan politics during the campaign.
"Palin became the spokesperson for the divisive
voices in American politics. She dismissed the
greatness of our immigrant heritage, indeed of
today's Alaska, where in Anchorage alone nearly
100 languages are spoken in the homes of the
children in our public schools," he wrote.
"She missed a golden opportunity to challenge the
rest of the country to adopt the welcoming spirit of
the Alaska frontier and the message of mutual
respect," he wrote.
Walter Joseph Hickel was born Aug. 18, 1919, in
Claflin, Kan., the oldest son of a German wheat
farmer. As the Depression-era Dust Bowl swallowed
Kansas, he made plans to leave the Great Plains.
He took up boxing as means of travel and won the
Kansas Golden Gloves championship. At age 20,
Hickel, impatient over the wait for a passport and
visa for a trip to Australia, chose Alaska.
In 1941, he married Jannice Cannon, who died in
1943. They had one son, Ted.
In 1945, Hickel married Ermalee Strutz. They had
five more sons -Bob, Wally Jr., Jack, Joe, and Karl.
He is survived by his wife, his sons, 21
grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated in Anchorage.
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