Jay Hammond, a gentleman politician

I didn’t know Jay Hammond personally.  After reading the paper and listening to the radio this past week, I can see where that was definitely my loss. But Jay Hammond still managed to influence my life, one of the many he probably influenced without ever knowing it. It was the mid to late 1970s. I was a newly minted bureaucrat for the North Slope Borough’s Health Department.  I was heading to Anchorage for a meeting and with me on the trip was Mary Edwardsen.  Mary was a Barrow lady, one of those Inupiaq women who made the Mother’s Club a force to be reckoned with in Barrow and who expanded their influence as the outside world hit their homes in an effort to protect their families and their culture. She was traveling with me as the representative of the North Slope Borough Health Board.

We traveled Wien from Barrow to Anchorage with a stop in Fairbanks where we picked up a passenger who seemed to know everyone on the plane. He wandered up and down the aisle during the brief flight to Anchorage greeting people, stopping to chat a few minutes with many of the passengers.  He stopped to say hi to Mary who was sitting across the aisle from me. I couldn’t hear the conversation but it was clearly an easy, relaxed visit from the smile on her face. When we got to Anchorage, this same gentleman stood with us at luggage.

Out of curiosity, I asked Mary who he was. She looked at me with that polite but startled look I had grown so used to when I asked really dumb questions in Barrow and said, “That’s Governor Hammond.”

Well, of course it was. And when I looked more closely I could clearly see the resemblance. The problem was that I came from New Jersey and in New Jersey governors did not travel without an entourage. They certainly did not wait to pick up their own luggage. They had people who did that for them while they were whisked into limos to go wherever it was really important people from New Jersey went – probably to New York.

There is no way I would have ever sat on a plane with a governor from New Jersey who was sitting in coach and visiting with people during the ride. But Jay Hammond made it all look so easy and natural. He may have been governor, but it seemed he had learned to not lose his humanity in the process. 

Over the years as I read and heard him on various occasions, I reveled at his clear and evident decision to never be anything other than he was. And that was a politician to the nth degree who demanded that we meet him at his level rather than finding our lowest common denominator and pandering to us. Would that our current crop of politicians had the guts to live that lesson!

I liked that in a governor. I liked it even better in an ex-governor who parleyed two terms in office to a life time of influence on public life – a public life that was the better for his participation in its important debates no matter which side you found yourself on. 

I grew up in Atlantic City where the natural progression for over thirty years was from mayor of the city to imprisoned felon.  I did not know a politician from my youth who went on to become a senior statesman. Governors lived many cuts above the rest of us and local state senators controlled a machine so well run and tightly oiled that no one even questioned its existence. I decided that as insane as Alaska politics were, if they could produce and sustain a Jay Hammond, then they were well worth my staying around in the state to see how the whole story turned out.

Many, many years later, after moving to Anchorage from Barrow, I was going into Carlos’ Mexican restaurant with a friend and her young daughter.  As I entered, I realized that we had cut off a member of the party that was being seated right before us. I turned to let that person through and found myself face to face with Jay Hammond. Ever the gentleman, he insisted that we go ahead and get seated.

I turned to the young teen with me and asked if she recognized the man behind us. She said no. I told her, “That’s former Governor Jay Hammond.  Remember that you saw him here today. Because you’ve just seen one of Alaska’s greatest men, one of its living legends.”