Former Alaska governor Bill Sheffield celebrates 90th birthday

Monday, July 2nd 2018, 3:04 AM AKDT

Bill Sheffield was, in many ways, an unlikely governor. A child of the depression raised in poverty, he stuttered terribly, never went to college -- and it was a job as a TV repairman for Sears and Roebuck which brought him to Alaska.

Sheffield later made his fortune in the hotel business and despite having no prior experience in public office was elected governor of Alaska in 1982. 

On Sunday, Sheffield celebrated his 90th birthday at his home in Turnagain. Several hundred people turned out to honor him. 

It was the type of birthday bash only Bill Sheffield could have thrown, set against the backdrop of his expansive home overlooking the coastal trail.

The event was a who’s who in Alaska politics. Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott mingled in the crowd, as well as former governor Sean Parnell and three lieutenant governors – Steve McAlpine, Fran Ulmer and Mead Treadwell. Congressman Don Young made an appearance, as did Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

There were also lawmakers and policy makers, who spanned the decades, people on both sides of the political fence. 

“It’s truly a diverse crowd,” said Paula Easley, a longtime resource development advocate. “Bill never looked to see if there was an “R” or a “D” in front of anyone’s name, before he would consider them a friend.” 

Friendship is one of the things Bill Sheffield says matters to him the most, perhaps it’s what has gotten him through life’s ups and downs.

The day after he opened a new hotel in Anchorage, the 1964 earthquake destroyed it. Towards the end of his term as governor, oil plunged to $8 a barrel and he had to make massive cuts in state government. He also survived an impeachment battle, but lost his bid for reelection. 

“No one cut the budget more than he did,” said Ashley Reed, who worked on Sheffield’s 1982 campaign. “And no one built more things than he did.” 

Reed says, despite the budget crisis, he believes Sheffield turned out to be one of Alaska’s more consequential governors.

He negotiated the state’s purchase of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government, helped to develop Red Dog Mine and laid the groundwork for the Community Development Quota program, which gave coastal communities a share of fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutians – and managed to put some savings into the Alaska Permanent Fund.

After office, Sheffield went on to become head of the Alaska Railroad and Port Director for the City of Anchorage.

The former governor says he feels blessed that he’s had a life full of opportunity and believes Alaska is still a place where you can live out your dream.

“If you stay focused on it, and work hard,” Sheffield told the crowd, “You can do just about anything you want to do.” 

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