Simple, yet deeply alive. Strong, yet gentle -- that’s how Ermalee Hickel’s family remembers a former Alaska first lady. She died Thursday afternoon, three days after she turned 92.

During the late Gov. Walter Hickel's two terms as governor, Ermalee was often seen by her husband's side — a quiet presence, but those who were close to Hickel say she was an important sounding board.  

The two met shortly after Hickel's first wife died from a sudden infection. After her death, he recalled that his wife had spoken warmly about her friend Ermalee Strutz, so he eventually sought her out at Ft. Richardson, the base where she worked, now known as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER).

Not long afterward, they married and were together for 65 years. During that time, Ermalee raised Hickel’s son from his first wife, as well as five boys the couple had together.

“Wherever she went, I could tell she was loved,”  her son Jack Hickel said. "One of her favorite things was to go out to the villages and meet the people.”

Ermalee Hickel was born into a pioneer family that came to Anchorage in 1917. Hickel said the Strutz family lived in a tiny house with red doors and shutters at the end of Delaney Park Strip. Her father delivered milk in a horse and buggy.

Hickel says his mom worked odd jobs that included the "slime line" at a seafood processing plant. She was also an usherette at the Fourth Avenue Theatre.  

Her son says despite those difficult early years, his mom never wanted to leave Alaska.

“I think it was just the frontier nature — the wild nature and the free sort of thinking that you could do anything you want in the sort of state we live in,” Hickel said.

His mother, he says, also had high exceptions for the Hickel children.  The boys were all required to help out with chores, and just in case they forgot, Ermalee wrote post-it notes and stuck them everywhere — from the bathroom sink to the headboard in their rooms and even the shower door.

“Mom was a task master,” he chuckled as he recalled his mother’s reminders. “I called her the 'little Mussolini'.” 

Jack Hickel also recalls how his mother encouraged and supported his father’s political career — and even convinced him to run for Governor a second time.

Hickel remembers how his dad had to race downtown to fill out the paperwork because there were only a few minutes to spare.  

“She was, as the old saying goes, 'the wind behind my dad’s wings'”, Hickel said.

While Ermalee liked being First Lady of Alaska, her son said it never went to her head — that she was a small-town girl who opened her arms and hearts to everyone, including President Richard Nixon, when he traveled to Alaska in 1971 — the year after he fired her husband from his post as U.S. Interior Secretary.

Hickel said his mother hosted the president in her home and treated him just as she would for guests from rural communities, which her boys say were among her favorite places to visit.  

But Ermalee may be best known for her hats.

“Every time she was in public, she’d have these little tiny hats on — and every time you saw her, it was a different hat,” Hickel said. “She’d dress the same, whether she was meeting dignitaries or was out in Point Hope."

Jack and Joe Hickel say what they’ll remember most about their mom is her commitment and sacrifice to her family. While Governor Hickel was out governing, Ermalee made sure her boys were entertained.

The two remember their mom loading up the car with skis as soon as Sunday mass ended. They say she would stop at Arctic Valley, roll her sleeves up and crouch under the car to put chains on the family’s tires. Ermalee drove the boys to the ski area and would wait all day in the chalet so they could enjoy the Alaska winters. Her boys hope Alaskans remember Ermalee Hickel similarly: a strong and committed woman who loved her state and its people.

Hickel often addressed his wife as “Mother,” to show his appreciation for her as both a wife and her role as matriarch of the family.

In a 2012  interview for a documentary called, “Alaska, the World and Walter Hickel,” Ermalee talked about their marriage and why she supported his career in politics.   

“We loved each other very much. We would tell each other that,” she said. “And I think it’s that type of living and thinking that helps a person go forward with what they’re wanting to do. It’s important.”

Ermalee said she had faith in her husband's abilities, because “[she] knew he knew what he was doing.” 

Emily Carlson and Rhonda McBride contributed to this story.

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