Friends, family celebrate 'larger than life' state Sen. Birch
About 400 folding chairs sat empty at Hilltop Ski Area so family and friends could gather to celebrate the life of state Sen. Chris Birch.
It wasn’t nearly enough.
Another 200 guests stood listening to tributes about a man known for his love of people and public service — he also served on the Fairbanks and Anchorage assemblies — as well as his growing digital album of selfies.
He died mid-evening on Aug. 7 at Providence Alaska Medical Center from an aortic dissection, a torn or ruptured aorta, according to his family.
Birch would have turned 69 on Aug. 28. He is survived by his wife Pam, two children, four grandchildren and two sisters.
One week later at the memorial service, family and friends fought back tears, often preferring smiles and laughter they say reflected Birch’s optimism, even in an angst-ridden life of public policy.
“As a little girl, I always knew my big brother was larger than life,” said younger sister Carolyn Miyake. “Kit, you’ll always be larger than life for me. There are no words to express how much we are going to miss you.”
Birch and his sisters grew up near mining camps near Fairbanks and the Brooks Range. He would earn a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering and a master’s degree in engineering management, both from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Since being elected to the Legislature three years ago, first to the House for two years then the Senate last November, Birch loved embarking on signature hikes up Mount Roberts and Juneau, and Thunder Mountain.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, Sen. Natasha von Imhof and longtime friend Rep. Jennifer Johnston often joined him for regular summits. All four entered the Legislature together three years ago.
“It is impossible to know what really binds souls together and why, but when it happens, it’s powerful,” Kopp told those gathering at Hilltop. “The brevity of a friendship can belie its intensity. [...]
“Natasha, Jennifer and I each found Chris’ spirit to be contagious. The light of his smile was so bright you couldn’t help but be drawn toward him in conversation. The joy in his heart seemed to capture every moment that he lived in. Rarely did you see anxious or worrisome thoughts pull him down. When Chris spoke, his entire body was engaged.
“From the active expression of his eyes, which just twinkled with delight, to the exaggerated movements of his hands highlighting his thoughts, to his cheerful voice, which just bounced along like an unbridled joy of a child experiencing a new delight.”
Friends nicknamed Birch after the Winnie the Pooh character Tigger for his boundless energy underscored by a gregarious demeanor seen regularly in the Capitol halls when he greeted visitors. This became especially true as tourist season ramped up and guests arrived with a deep curiosity about a place he called home most of his life.
Johnston had known Birch since their two families lived in Fairbanks in the early 1980s only to move to Anchorage in the '90s. She said the two once joked about what would have happened if Birch had a ground floor office with windows looking out rather than his first floor space that overlooked the courtyard.
“Oh, boy, I can see it now,” she said, “There’s Chris in the window, waving hello to everybody coming into the door. The welcoming committee in the capital.”
While he did not serve in what’s commonly known as a leadership position, or sit on the finance committee, he quietly emerged as a featured voice on the Permanent Fund dividend debate that raged all year.
He staunchly supported reduced budgets done at a measured and careful pace, which would produce an affordable dividend, just less the statutory formula — about $3,000 — Gov. Mike Dunleavy sought.
When the House Finance Committee held road hearings last month, those supporting the full PFD rallied outside the Anchorage Legislative Information Office. Johnston, the committee co-chair, recalled Birch grabbing a stack of charts illustrating the state’s fiscal picture, then going outside to meet with a group he knew staunchly opposed his position.
“That’s Chris; that’s Tigger,” Johnston said. “It was all done very respectfully. They should just see what the picture was. They needed to understand what they were talking about. I don’t think anybody could have done that as well as he was doing that.”
Two years after claiming his first legislative seat in the House, Birch won again in last November’s general election, this time grabbing the Senate post vacated by current Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer.
He then earned the Republican caucus’ support to become the Senate Resources Committee chair, a seat he coveted after serving two years on the House Resources Committee.
Birch also sat on the Labor & Commerce and Education committees and was vice chair of Community & Regional Affairs.
He held his final hearing on April 29. On that day he moved out of his committee Senate Bill 90, a fisheries bill co-sponsored by Sens. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks.
Birch succeeded Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, as Senate Resources chair. Giessel served six years as the lone chair on a committee that typically has co-chairs. She oversaw the oil tax reform, which goes by its familiar name of SB 21, and a natural gas pipeline plan drafted by former Gov. Sean Parnell.
Birch cherished the chance to be Giessel’s successor while supporting her ascent to become Senate President.
Colleagues have long-known he was most proud of being the only mining engineer in the Legislature, a trait he periodically noted during his three years in office.
“He had very strong convictions; you never wondered where Chris stood on subjects,” Giessel said before Thursday’s services. “He had significant curiosity so that if he didn’t know something about a subject, he was diligently asking questions and digging into the subject. I will miss that.”
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