Sen. Chris Birch greeted colleagues, media and newcomers to the Capitol halls daily with a signature smile, one that produced a steady dose of optimism, even at a time when debates over budgets – and subsequent vetoes – and the Permanent Fund dividend size created tremendous angst.

The gregarious Anchorage Republican regularly encouraged people to take advantage of a sunny Juneau day while recalling his most recent hike up Mount Roberts or Mount Juneau, or along the Perseverance Trail.

Those are a few traits his colleagues already miss while they mourn Birch’s sudden death late Wednesday evening.

“What Chris had was a true zest for life, an enthusiasm for living and it was apparent the first five seconds of meeting him,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, who joined Birch on many of those hikes.

“It was consistent the entire time that I knew him. He never wavered in his optimism and his upbeat nature," she said. "It’s the one thing I will truly miss: the continually never-ending optimistic viewpoint regardless of what the circumstances are. He truly loved Alaska, loved his family, and frankly loved humanity.”

The 68-year-old is survived by his wife, Pam, two children and four grandchildren. He died at Providence Alaska Medical Center from an aortic dissection, a torn or ruptured aorta, his family said in a prepared statement.

His family said the man people saw in Juneau was the “exact same husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend that he was to all of us. He was the ultimate cheerleader and it is difficult to imagine this world without him.”

The son of a mining engineer and geologist, Birch grew up near mining camps in Fairbanks and the Brooks Range. He received a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1972 and a master of science degree in engineering management seven years later.

Birch joined the Legislature in 2017 when he won a House seat representing South Anchorage, having already served on the Fairbanks and Anchorage assemblies. Even while spending two years in the minority, Birch advanced legislation that received Gov. Bill Walker’s signature last year.

In his lone piece of legislation those two years, Birch batted one-for-one. Under House Bill 333, a municipality could create its own ordinance that prohibited certain cell phone use while driving within a school zone or property. The bill cleared the House, 37-1, and the Senate, 20-0.

Close friend and fellow hiking partner, House Rep. Chuck Kopp served as co-sponsor.

“He was just a person full of confidence and I think he just showed Alaska how a man lives just with honor and integrity,” Kopp said. “He lived without pretense. There was no pretense with Chris. He just was who he was. He lived it with joy. A lot of us in Alaska miss him dearly. We’re still getting our minds around it.”

Kopp said one of his favorite Birch stories dates to a wintertime hike up Juneau’s Thunder Mountain trail.

“We did it in the dead of winter on a beautiful sunny day of Juneau,” he said. “I have pictures of that hike on Faceboook. Just a magnificent drop looking out over Auke Bay coming down off the mountain. And one picture of Chris standing by himself, his expression is one of almost transcended peace and a joy. It’s how he lived his life.”

Two years after winning his first state race, Birch claimed a Senate seat vacated by current Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer.

He then succeeded Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, as the Senate Resources Committee chair, a seat he coveted after serving two years on the House Resources Committee.

Birch also served on the Labor & Commerce and Education committees and was vice chair of Community & Regional Affairs.
This year he staunchly supported reduced budgets done at a measured and careful pace along with an affordable dividend that came under the statutory formula – about $3,000 – Gov. Mike Dunleavy sought.

To close out the second special session last week, he supported House Bill 2001, which restored more than $300 million of Dunleavy’s vetoes and authorized a $1,600 dividend. Among the funds replenished was $110 million to the university; Dunleavy vetoed $130 million.

In his final floor speech, he said, in part:

“Of particular interest to me as a University of Alaska alum was to see the reinstatement of a large portion of the drawdown against the university. I think the largest responsibility we have here as a legislative body is to provide some stability in our communities, in our state. There's not a state in the country that wouldn’t give their right arm to be in our predicament — $65 billion in the bank, a tremendous cache of human and capable resources, a youthful population, underemployed arguably, but we have a lot going on for us and a lot to be proud of.”

Birch’s House successor, Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, said he’ll miss Birch calling him, “my representative.”

“He was forever smiling and enthusiastic about life,” Shaw said in a prepared statement. “This is a sad day for our community and for Alaska. I will miss our banter over politics, but more importantly, I will truly miss ‘My Senator.’”

On Thursday, Dunleavy directed that state flags fly at half-staff from Friday, Aug. 9 till Wednesday, Aug. 14. In a prepared statement, he said Birch's "immense contributions to the communities and the state will always be remembered."

Meanwhile, Kopp and von Imhof said the hikes will continue and serve to keep Birch’s memory strong.

“We will find a mountain in Juneau and we’ll hike it,” she said. “And we’ll say a prayer for him at the top.”

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