From rags to riches, from President pro-tempore Emeritus of the United States Senate to felon, from convict to martyr, the story of Theodore Fulton “Ted” Stevens is solidly woven into the tapestry of Alaska’s history.
“Uncle Ted” was widely acclaimed for what he did for his state in his long tenure that began 49 years ago this month.
Stevens and his wife Ann drove up the AlCan from Washington, D.C., in their 6-year-old Buick, arriving in Fairbanks in February of 1953 where he took a job in the law office of Charles Clasby. Clasby was the attorney for Emil Usibelli, owner of coal mines at Healy and also a client of Stevens’ former employer in the nation’s capital.
Ann Stevens later confided that their trip to Alaska had been only for a six-month trial. Instead, it was a connection that was to last the rest of their lives. Tragically, her life came to an end Dec. 4, 1978, when the private jet carrying her and her husband crashed upon landing at Anchorage International Airport. She left behind her grieving husband and their five children. He also was to die in a plane crash 38 years later.
In 1980 Stevens married Catherine Bittner. They had one child, a daughter.
Stevens was born Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis, Ind., the son of an accountant. Six years old when the Great Depression hit, he and his family were living in Chicago. Family head George Stevens was among millions of other Americans who lost jobs in the financial disaster. The Stevenses returned to Indianapolis to live with George’s parents. The couple divorced. Ted remained with his grandparents while his siblings and their mother moved to California.
It was a hard-scrabble life as the grandfather was the only member of the household to be employed. Ted helped out, selling newspapers and doing odd jobs after school. The grandfather fell down a set of stairs in 1934, puncturing a lung and dying of pneumonia. Ted left to join his mother in California. He graduated from Redondo Union High School in 1942, six months after the United States was drawn into World War II.
Stevens attempted to enlist in the Navy but failed the vision test. Undaunted, he practiced exercises that would correct the deficiency, continuing those while an air cadet at Montana State College. Gaining high marks, he was transferred to pre-flight training at Santa Ana, Calif. He earned his pilot’s wings in 1944 at age 21 and was shipped to the China-Burma-India Theater where he flew C-46 and C-47 aircraft in support of Gen. Claire Chenault’s “Flying Tigers” working with Chinese Nationalist troops.
He was discharged in March of 1946, having been decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal by the Army Air Corps and the Yuan Hai Medal awarded by the Chinese Nationalist Army. He returned to the States and enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles where he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science a year later. He was accepted at Harvard and graduated with a law degree in 1950. He supplemented his GI Bill benefit with part-time jobs, including a stint as a bartender.
Stevens found a position with a prominent Washington law firm with clients in Alaska.
He became interested in politics and volunteered with the presidential campaign of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was there that he became acquainted with Clasby and with advocates of statehood for Alaska.
Although an established Alaskan was being proposed by local Republicans as U.S. attorney general for the Territory, Stevens was appointed by Eisenhower and approved by the Senate. He earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor and was rumored to have gone with marshals on raids, armed with pistols. He was to deny that, saying that only once had he carried a sidearm and it was holstered throughout the event.
The prosecutor was known to have a fiery temper. Federal trials often were punctuated by heated exchanges between defense lawyers and the government’s attorney. Stevens was said to have been an able prosecutor and legal strategist.
After two years in office, Stevens returned to Washington at the request of an Interior Dept. official to serve as legislative counsel.
Secretary of Interior Fred Seaton was a good friend of Fairbanks Daily News-Miner publisher C. W. Snedden, a staunch supporter of Alaska statehood. It was in that position that the 33-year-old lawyer put his talents to work on the statehood cause—despite such political activity by a government employee being against the law.
Stevens hired Marilyn Atwood, daughter of Anchorage Daily Times publisher and statehood booster Robert B. Atwood, to assist him in the effort. They worked closely with Seaton and Gen. Nathan Twining, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to iron out problem areas within the proposed legislation. With passage of the Alaska Statehood Act on June 30, 1958, Stevens’ work was complete and he returned to open his own law office in the 49th State.
Elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1964 and re-elected two years later, Stevens was chosen as House Majority Leader. He twice ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator, in 1962 and 1968.
Early during that time, this writer had occasion to seek legal assistance from the future senator. A customer claimed damage due to alleged omission of material from a printed program. The customer hired Wendell P. Kay, a leading Democrat in the Legislature. The leading Republican member was seen as a likely advocate. Stevens took the case in exchange for a $75 fee, shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” He filed an interrogatory motion with 25 questions to be answered under oath. There was no response and the case was dismissed. At $3 per question, it was considered a bargain.
In December of 1968, following the death of Sen. E. L. “Bob” Bartlett, a Democrat, Gov. Walter J. Hickel appointed the Republican Stevens to fill the vacancy. He was elected to that post in 1970 and until 2008 won re-election by a margin of at least two-thirds of the vote each time.
Stevens was adept at securing appropriations for his state, expert at parliamentary procedure and in persuading opponents to come around to his side. He was both criticized and respected by opponents for his ability to win arguments. Critics objected that Alaska, with such a small population, received an “excessive” share of federal dollars. Stevens countered that a small population in a largely undeveloped area consisting mostly of land owned by the federal government justified more public assistance.
Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was a major event in which Stevens was involved.
One of its provisions allowed Eklutna, Inc., to claim sites where Chugiak High School and Eagle River Elementary were built–titles to which had not yet been issued to the state. When Bob Kallenberg and other residents confronted Stevens on that, his response was, “It was never Congress’ intent that Eklutna would get those schools.” Later, agreements signed by Eklutna allowed continued use for nominal annual fees but with some conditions attached.
It was during the 2008 campaign that corruption charges were leveled, saying Stevens accepted gifts that were unreported. Most significant was remodeling of Stevens’ Girdwood home. Work was done by contractors hired by Bill Allen, chairman of VECO, an oil services firm that profited hugely from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Prosecutors alleged that tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of work and material had been provided by Allen but was neither paid for nor claimed as a donation. Stevens was convicted despite assertions that he repeatedly asked for a bill but never received one.
Former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a popular Democrat, had filed to run against Stevens.
Begich refrained from making an issue of the charges and subsequent conviction. That was not the case for others, however, including a vociferous Outside operative who filled the airwaves and newspaper pages with angry accusations. When ballots were counted, Begich was winner by a margin of 3,953 votes or 1.55% of the 317,733 total. An Alaska Independence Party candidate had received 13,197 votes, a Libertarian 3,483 and an independent candidate 1,385.
On April Fool’s Day of 2009—four months after the election—newly-appointed Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the seven charges on which Stevens had been convicted were being withdrawn due to “prosecutorial misconduct.”
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia presided over the trial. Several times he had scolded prosecutors when various complaints were raised.
On April 7 he re-convened the court and threw out the conviction.
“In nearly 25 years on the bench,” Sullivan said, “I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case.” It was revealed that prosecutors failed to turn over to the defense several pieces of evidence that contradicted their case. Included were statements that witnesses had lied to investigators. Allen, the government’s chief witness, was himself under a cloud and was suspected of presenting, at the urging of prosecutors, a false picture of his relationship with Stevens.
A detailed look at the basis for Holder’s decision can be found at https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/publcations/washington-lawyer/articles/october-2009-ted-stevens.cfm.
Exonerated, Stevens announced that he would seek election to his former seat in 2014.
He would not live to do so. Near Dillingham, he was aboard a private plane that crashed Aug. 9, 2010. Stevens, 86, did not survive. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Begich, whose own father disappeared on a flight days before he was re-elected to Congress posthumously, was to serve but one term in the Senate. He was defeated in 2014 by Republican Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s current junior senator.