Mr. President, I thank my colleague and I, too, thank the Senator from Virginia for allowing us to speak today on the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Alaska Constitutional Convention. Although is has not quite been 50 years since Alaska’s statehood, it was half a century ago today that 55 delegates from around the State met to debate what would become the Alaska Constitution.
Prior to the Constitutional Convention, the Convention’s secretary, Thomas Stewart, traveled around the country for six months looking at other states’ constitutions and how their provisions may work in Alaska. Later, 55 delegates were elected from every region in Alaska, and on November 8, 1955, the delegates met in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska. As the country was shrouded in the Cold War, Alaska’s Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening stood to address the Constitutional Convention, and said:
"Alaska has a great, great destiny. We are here situated by geography and by history in the farthest north and our farthest west in a unique position to achieve that destiny. We were formerly part of a country which today, under changed government, represents the antithesis of everything that we believe in and of everything we hold dear. We have a geographic juxtaposition to that area. We can see it from our mainland with the naked eye. What a challenge then to create in these far northern latitudes a shining and eternal example of what we want to call the American way of life, to make Alaska not merely a bulwark defense for the whole hemisphere, for the free world, but a spiritual citadel of the American idea. It can only be done by the application to Alaska of basic American principles, the most basic of which is government by consent of the governed. So you have here a thrilling opportunity, and I know you will live up to it."
And that they did. The Alaska Constitution was the result of the hard work of the pioneers of the Last Frontier. Five of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention are still alive today, and I would like to take a moment to recognize the accomplishments of these outstanding Alaskans.
Victor Fisher was a member of the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives and the Alaska State Senate. Mr. Fisher was born in Germany, with an American father and Russian mother. Mr. Fisher also worked at the University of Alaska, primarily as the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
George Sundborg, Sr. began his life as a newspaper journalist, editor, publisher, and owner. After the Constitutional Convention, Mr. Sundborg continued his service to Alaska as a staff member to the Territorial Governor.
John B. “Jack” Coghill was a Representative in the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives. After the Convention, Mr. Coghill continued to serve the State as President of the Alaska School Board Association and Lieutenant Governor.
Burke Riley served as the Territorial Secretary of Alaska and served two terms in the Alaska Territorial Legislature. As a Delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, Mr. Riley served as the Rules Committee Chairman. Mr. Riley also served as the Chief of Staff to Governor Egan, and assisted in setting up the government of the State of Alaska during Governor Egan’s extended illness.
And, Seaborn Buckalew served in the Territorial House of Representatives. After the Convention, Mr. Buckalew was appointed to the Superior Court and was an active National Guard member.
The result of the hard work of these delegates was a constitution that the National Municipal League said was “one of the best, if not the best, state constitution ever written.” The Alaska Constitutional Convention would not have been a success without the assistance of the staff and consultants. I would like to commend several staffers for their service to the Alaska Constitutional Convention: Thomas Stewart, Katherine Hurley, Dr. George Rogers, and Doris Ann Bartlett. I would also like to thank the two surviving consultants: Dr. Vincent Ostrum and Dr. Earnest Bartley for their service to Alaska.
I was not yet born at the time Alaska’s Constitution was created, but that document continues to serve Alaska’s leaders and as a roadmap to our state’s future. Alaska’s Constitutional Convention didn’t just set the wheels in motion toward statehood, it has guided my generation and my children’s generation, and it will guide future generations of Alaskans forward to be, as Governor Gruening put it, “a shining and eternal example of what we want to call the American way of life."