It was on October 16, 1972, that Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives and three others, including a prominent member of Congress from New Orleans, disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau.
Nicholas Joseph Begich was declared dead in December after the plane was never found despite a major search effort. The crash was believed to have been caused by bad weather although no wreckage or debris has ever been found.
The tragedy and the all-out military and Coast Guard search for the missing plane led to passage by Congress of legislation requiring locator beacons be placed in all aircraft.
On that fateful day, Begich was accompanied by Hale Boggs, a prominent Democrat who was expected to become Speaker of the House upon his reelection in November. Also aboard were Begich’s aide Russell Brown and pilot Don Jonz. Boggs, a favorite to retain his seat, was in Alaska to assist Begich in his race against challenger Don Young, a Republican. Begich was posthumously elected by a wide margin even though missing for three weeks prior to the election. Young, however, won the special election held to replace Begich.
Begich was born on April 6, 1932, in Eveleth, Minn., the son of Croatian immigrants. He graduated from St. Cloud State University and received a Master of Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. He came to Alaska in 1952 to work as a guidance counselor with the Anchorage School District and was its director of student personnel before being selected as school superintendent at Ft. Richardson in 1959. He also taught political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Active in the Democrat party, he ran for a seat in the Alaska State Senate and served there from 1962 to 1970. He opposed Ronald Pollock for election to Congress and won the seat over both the incumbent and Fairbanks banker Frank J. Murkowski who also was on the ballot.
Begich and his wife Margaret “Pegge,” had six children: Nicholas Jr., Tom, Mark, Stephanie and Michelle.
The Begich family is steeped in politics. Pegge Begich unsuccessfully challenged Young in 1984 and 1986. Begich’s brother Joseph served 18 years in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Two of Nick Begich’s sons have been elected to office and a grandson, Nick Begich III of Chugiak was a recent candidate for the Anchorage Assembly. Mark was an aide to Mayor Tony Knowles before being elected to the Assembly, serving two terms as mayor and then going on to win the U.S. Senate seat held by long-time Sen. Ted Stevens. Tom Begich was elected last November to the Alaska State Senate.
In the days leading up to the 1972 election, both Begich and Young campaigned in Chugiak-Eagle River. Begich stopped in at the local newspaper on the day before their disappearance and was interviewed by this writer. Young made several local stops, including a visit to a barber shop where he chatted good-naturedly with two practitioners of the tonsorial art, several customers who dropped in and a reporter.
Begich’s presumed death opened the door for Young to become the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. The schoolteacher, river boatman, trapper and gold miner from Fort Yukon will be seeking his 24th term in 2018. Despite many controversies he has won consistently every two years since the 1973 special election to fill the vacant seat.
Born June 9, 1933, in Meridian, Calif., Young received a teaching degree from Yuba College then served in an Army tank battalion from 1955-57 before earning a bachelor’s degree from Chico State College. He came to Alaska in 1959 to work in construction and other endeavors and teaching fifth grade in the Bureau of Indian Affairs school at Fort Yukon. There he married Lu Fredson, who was constantly at his side until her death Aug. 9, 2009. The couple raised two children. Two years ago he married Anne Garland Walton, a flight nurse from Fairbanks.
The Congressman is known for brash actions and impolite speech, including vulgarity during appearances at schools.
He has been censured by his colleagues and accused of various improper actions, including failing to disclose valuable gifts. He has brandished an oosik, using it to emphasize a point during debate. Yet he remains popular with his constituents. His closest election contest was a primary in which Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell came within 350 votes of matching the incumbent’s tally. He has won every general election with at least 55% of the total.
The man who died while trying to help Begich gain a second term was 58-year-old Hale Boggs, an attorney from New Orleans. He was born Feb. 15, 1014, in Long Beach, Miss. Elected in 1941 at age 26, he was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He was a member of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from 1963-64 and was the only member to dissent with the conclusion that Leon Oswald acted alone. At the time of the plane’s disappearance he was House Majority Leader and was expected to become Speaker in the coming session.
Boggs’ wife Lindy remembered that she was called by Pegge Begich shortly after word that the plane carrying their husbands was missing. She said the other woman reassured her, saying that Nick Begich had once been involved in a plane crash and was found unharmed some nine hours later. Unfortunately, both were left as widows.
Lindy Boggs went on to be elected to fill her husband’s seat in the House, serving four terms. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican. She died in 2013 at the age of 97.
The disappearance of the plane carrying the two Congressmen was not without controversy.
Begich’s son Nick Jr. feels the plane was sabotaged by officials of the United States Government. Others believe it was a conspiracy connected with the Warren Commission report. Those who are intrigued by conspiracy theories may explore these by Googling “Begich-Boggs disappearance” or the Begich name.
Legacies to the Congressman whose life was cut short are in a memorial monument at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., the name Begich Towers given to the composite building in Whittier, and Nicholas J. Begich Middle School in Anchorage.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected].