Hotly debated currently is the propriety of placing a cap on Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend. Most Alaskans recently deposited their $1100 check. Without the slice Gov. Bill Walker took to help offset the budget deficit with which he is faced, the check would have been twice as much.
Generally considered the “father” of the dividend was Jay Hammond, governor of the 49th State at the time the measure was enacted.
This writer has met all of Alaska’s governors since Bill Egan. Not to brag—it was just part of the job he held. They all meant well and some were more popular or more successful than others. Jay Hammond happens to be one of my favorites. Egan, by the way, had a remarkable talent for remembering names. His brain was like a 100 gigabyte computer when it came to filing faces and the name that came with each, to be recalled even years later.
The son of a Methodist minister, Hammond was born July 21, 1922, in Troy, N.Y. After a childhood that included many boyish pranks, he attended Penn State University, studying to be a petroleum engineer. At 19, he enlisted in the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Having already obtained a private pilot’s license, he wanted to be a naval aviator, and ended up being chosen by the Marine Corps. To read his memoir, “Tales of Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor,” one would think he barely made it through boot camp and flight school.
Actually, his own self-deprecating manner may have been learned from a Marine pilot buddy credited with downing many enemy planes.
Of that humble pilot’s demeanor, Hammond wrote, “He’d learned early on we don’t like or dislike others so much for what they are, as for what they make us think of ourselves, a ploy used by many successful politicians.”
As a Marine fighter pilot flying Corsairs, the future Alaskan was assigned to the fabled Black Sheep Squadron headed by Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boynton. Almost seeming to regret that it happened, Hammond said within a matter of days he was transferred from that rip-roaring group of misfits to Saipan where he served with the F4U-211 Squadron. As with most combat veterans, he did not dwell on battles in which he participated. His unit, though, was engaged in many ferocious engagements with Japanese planes. Many of his colleagues were credited with being aces many times over but his own record was undisclosed.
Hammond married a beautiful young woman who was a talented musician as well as a model for a top magazine.
He had been introduced to Henrietta Juve while at Penn State. He and “Hank” were married while he was still in flight training in the expectation that he would soon be sent overseas. That marriage did not last. His as yet unknown life partner awaited in Alaska.
Discharged six months after the war ended, he decided to head for the Last Frontier. There, he saw many opportunities and found employment in a number of fields. He settled in Fairbanks and enrolled in the University of Alaska where he studied for a degree in biological science. Before long he found himself in the Bristol Bay area, commercial fishing. It was there that he ran successfully for the House of Representatives in the first Alaska State Legislature. He also served for a term as mayor of the Bristol Bay Borough.
Hammond was elected governor in 1974 in a hotly contested three-way race, running as a Republican. Opponents were incumbent Democrat Egan and Alaskan Independence Party candidate Joe Vogler. A Fairbanks firebrand, Vogler sought independence from the United States. Egan had lost some support from people who were opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic, while Hammond gained help from President Richard Nixon signing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act the previous year. When the votes were counted, Hammond was on top by a slim 287 votes. Vogler’s 4,770 votes were lamented by Democrats as playing a part in the outcome. Lowell Thomas, Jr., won the lieutenant-governor race and became Hammond’s second-in-command.
Claiming to be a “reluctant” politician, Hammond’s instincts in that arena were well-honed.
He was elected to the state House in 1959, running then as an independent but changing to the Republican Party two years later. He was elected to the Senate in 1967 and served in the Legislature until elected as governor.
Hammond was strongly supported by the Legislature and the public when an amendment to the State Constitution created the Permanent Fund. It specified that 25% of oil revenues be set aside to compensate the people when oil income was exhausted.
A formula was set up to distribute a portion of the Fund’s earnings as a dividend to eligible Alaskans.
Leading up to the enactment was disappointment that $900 million received for North Slope oil leases in 1969 had been squandered. Leaders looked for ways to manage future revenues in a responsible manner. It was pointed out that the Constitution specifies that Alaska’s natural resources belong to all the people. That was interpreted to mean that everyone, including those in the future, should benefit from harvesting those resources. It was believed that one way to share that benefit was between an annual dividend to residents and helping fund state government.
Hammond at first proposed setting up a corporation, Alaska Inc., to distribute the dividend, specifying that those who had lived here for a specified time would benefit.
That concept was challenged in court, opening participation to all residents who spend most of each year in the state.
A quasi-public corporation was created to manage the Fund. Dividends have ranged from $331.29 in 1984 to a high of $2,072 in 2015. Until oil prices dropped significantly a couple of years ago, the state’s income from that source funded 80% or more of its expenses. With the decline in royalties, Gov. Bill Walker vetoed $1,000 of the dividend in each of the past two years. Current value of the fund is $62.7 billion. That amount is quite attractive to government leaders who seek ways to reduce a $2 billion deficit for this year.
“Our greatest challenge with the Permanent Fund and a fiscal plan is assuring each provides the maximum benefit for all Alaskans, not simply a favored few at cost to the many,” Hammond said. That is a hard goal to cross with so many hands outstretched in hopes of receiving a slice of the pie.
Hammond and his wife Bella homesteaded at Lake Clark. He flew his own plane almost until he died there peacefully, with Bella at his side, on Aug. 2, 2005.
A colorful figure filled with both intellect and a sense of humor, Hammond authored three books and hosted a popular television show that highlighted interesting Alaskans.
Because of his poetic style and free use of circumlocution, the former governor was the most difficult subject this writer ever covered. In one column many years ago, I cited a couple of passages in reviewing Hammond’s memoir. In stating his view on abortion, he used a lot of words without even coming close to saying how he felt about that highly controversial matter. I also noted that when interviewing the governor I found myself scratching out one item to quote and starting another, then voiding that when he was saying something different once again, all on the same subject.
Hammond was kind enough to review “Starlight Memories,” a collection of those columns. He generously remembered in his comments that column from several years past.
His wisdom and his humor are missed. In the current PFD debate, his voice would be loud and, not in keeping with the norm, directly to the point. Best we stop there, lest, in Hammond’s phraseology, some “political pigeons think their plumage is in danger of being plucked.”
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].