Earlier this month, Alaska lost an icon – one of the state’s most popular First Ladies, Ermalee Hickel. She died at the age of 92, just a few days after her birthday on Sept. 11.  

In the day’s leading up to her death, family members say she talked about joining her husband Wally, who died in 2010. They had been married for 65 years.

During that time, Walter Hickel served twice as governor of Alaska. President Richard Nixon also tapped him to serve as Interior Secretary.

Many Alaskans have good memories of the couple, including me.

One Valentine’s Day, I asked Wally what the most romantic thing was about their relationship – and he joked that they gave each other “cod liver oil” kisses every morning -- his way of saying their marriage was about taking good care of each other.

I’ve also heard him affectionately call her “Mother”, in a show of respect. After all, she raised six Hickel boys -- Ted, Bob, Wally Jr., Jack, Joe and Karl. Even before they were teens, they loomed over their short mother. Still, she kept them in line.

Ermalee always seemed to be the calm in the eye of Hickel’s political storms, someone who managed both family and politics, quietly behind the scenes.

In this episode of Frontiers, we look at a few slices from Ermalee’s remarkable life and times — from humble beginnings to a governor’s wife.

Some of the highlights:

    Ermalee’s Early Days: A history lesson and a love story all rolled into one. How life on an Anchorage homestead prepared her for the Governor’s Mansion.
    Ermalee and Politics: She may have been small in stature. But whether in politics or family, she was a force not to be underestimated.
    Ermalee and Motherhood: Jack and Joe Hickel share some of their favorite stories about their mom – how she became known to Joe as “Little Mussolini.”  

There are many things I learned this week about Ermalee Hickel that surprised me. Good surprises. Hope you enjoy this show as much as photojournalist Beth Peak and I have enjoyed bringing it to you.

Also special thanks to: the UAA-APU Consortium Library’s Special Collections Department. Staffers helped us sift through boxes and boxes from their Walter J. Hickel collection. We also had help from UAF’s Film Archives, which turned up some real gems – including footage of the Wally and Ermalee in a dogsled race and in a rare talk show interview, together, with former Lt. Governor Red Boucher.




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