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Ermalee Hickel redefined the role of Alaska’s First Lady

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Ermalee Strutz at 17

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The Strutz Family – Ermalee, the youngest daughter, is on the left.

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Left photo: Ermalee, center, in 1942
Right photo: Ermalee, second from bottom, in 1942

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The Hickel family in Anchorage, August 1970.  (left to right) Ted, Wally Jr., Secretary and Ermalee Hickel, Karl, Bob, Joe, and Jack.

Ermalee & Wally Hickel

Ermalee Strutz was born on September 11, 1925 in Anchorage. Her father, Louis, was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army who was posted to Alaska during World War I. After the war, he brought his fiancé, Aline Sawhill, to Alaska from Missoula, Montana. They were married soon after the war ended, and in 1924 they acquired a home at the west end of the Park Strip, a former air strip that became a popular sports field and park in downtown Anchorage.

In that home they raised six children; four girls and two boys. According to Ermalee, who was the youngest daughter, her mother “hated housework” but loved gardening and eventually became one of Alaska’s “master gardeners.” Every summer she put out a fishnet on the beach just below their home. When the tide went out, one of the chores of the Strutz kids was to check the net and bring the salmon up to the house.

In those days, there was only one school in Anchorage. It included the elementary grades, middle school and high school in a single building located where the Alaska Performing Arts Center is today. Ermalee enjoyed sports, especially softball. She was a Rainbow Girl and rarely missed a dance, and she served as the editor of the school newspaper.

Her first paying job was to usher at the Empress Theatre. She also worked at the cannery at the Port of Anchorage as a “stuffer” packing the cans tightly with salmon before the lids were sealed. Well-known Anchorage banker Dan Cuddy also worked at the cannery at the same time in his teen-age years and credited the owner with helping him earn enough money to pay for law school.

Between her junior and senior years, Ermalee worked as a secretary at the large military base, Elmendorf Field, that adjoined Anchorage. She learned shorthand in high school and typed correspondence for a Major with an office “on the top floor of a great big building on base.” When she graduated, she worked full-time for that same officer.

Not long after Wally returned to Alaska with his infant son, Ted, he asked a friend if he knew the Strutz girls. “Yes”, his friend replied. “The last one got married last month.”

“No, she didn’t,” replied Wally with his trademark confidence and determination. Wally had returned to Alaska following the death of his first wife, Jannice, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Distraught by the loss of his young and lovely wife, and needing to care for Ted, his two-year old son, Wally suddenly remembered Jannice saying “That Ermalee Strutz is such a wonderful girl.” That convinced him to appeal to the military officers in charge of the Denver air field where he worked as a civilian aircraft inspector, and they allowed him to return to Alaska with Ted to be close to the Cannons, Ted’s grandparents, who lived in Anchorage.

Wally kept looking for Ermalee and eventually ran into her at the Kashim Club on the base. “Are you Ermalee Strutz?” he asked.

“Yes, and you’re Wally Hickel, and you married Jannice,” Ermalee responded, having attended high school a year or two behind Jannice.

Wally and Ermalee were married in a small Catholic church on the same block where the Holy Family Cathedral is located today. But after the wedding, Charlie Jett, his best man, kidnapped the bride and raced off with her in his car in the tradition of the often-practiced “shivaree.”

Someone said, “Hey Wally, I saw Charlie racing his car down the street and Ermalee was with him!” Wally grabbed another car and drove right across the park strip and headed for the only road out of town – the road to Palmer. Not finding them, he eventually drove back to town. Looking in the rear view mirror as he passed the South Seas, a favorite local bar where Wally worked evenings, he spotted Charlie’s car.

“I thought that was fun,” recalled Ermalee, as she re-told the story in her late eighties.

When Wally and Ermalee were married on Thanksgiving Day in 1945, they had four days off from Thursday through Sunday before they had to be back at work on the base on Monday. They had a brief honeymoon in Valdez, and Wally invited Charlie Jett to join them to share the driving. Soon after the wedding, Charlie and another friend, George Arcand, moved into the back room in the Hickel’s tiny home on K Street. The rent paid by the men helped the newlyweds pay their bills including monthly invoices from the Mayo Clinic for the treatment Jannice had received the year before. Both Wally and Ermalee had to report to work at the base at 8 o’clock in the morning. They would return home after 5 pm for dinner, and then, Wally had to drive to the South Seas where he was a bartender and bouncer until midnight.

When Ermalee became Mrs. Hickel, she instantly became “Mother” to Wally’s son Ted. Five more Hickel sons arrived in the ensuing years, and Wally would call Ermalee “Mother” for the rest of his life.

Ermalee never complained. Wally described her as “light as a butterfly and tougher than a boot.”

He recalled in an interview nearly 60 years later that in 1946 he and Ermalee bought their home at 13th Avenue and K Street in Anchorage, paying $6,185. In their spare hours, Ermalee put fresh wallpaper on the walls and painted the remaining interior, while Wally put in a foundation beneath the house made of five-gallon gas cans filled with concrete. It’s still standing.

In the summer of 1947, a lady from Valdez asked if the Hickels would sell their house for $14,100. “She wrote me a check for it,” Wally remembers, “and boy, was that a lot of money!” He had just started his business, as he set out to complete three partially-built homes behind Chilkoot Charlie’s, an old-time pub on Spenard Road, in what was then the outskirts of Anchorage..

Wally had come home from work one day and told Ermalee that he had quit his job on base and “he had figured it out.” He was going into the construction business, beginning with completing those homes. He and Ermalee moved into one, and he had two new homes to sell. “That’s how we got started in business,” he said years later.

By 1952, Hickel Construction had built nearly two hundred homes and duplexes in Anchorage, and Wally built the first motel in Alaska, the Traveler’s Inn. The previous year, he purchased 70 acres overlooking Turnagain Arm from an individual who had to sell the property in a rush. After an all night negotiation, Hickel finally agreed to pay $7,000 for what would become one of the most coveted neighborhoods in Anchorage, known today as Resolution Pointe.

And then Wally got into politics. In 1954, the Republican Party changed its rules and elected their National Committee man and woman by public vote rather than by the delegates who attended the State convention. Hickel ran for the position and won, serving as the spokesman for the party for a decade.

“Wally got deep into politics. He loved it!” remembers Ermalee. In 1966, he won the Republican primary and unseated Governor Bill Egan in the General Election.

One of the stories that Ermalee enjoyed telling in her later years was about her hero the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first individual to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from the US to Paris, France. In 1967, State Senator Lowell Thomas, Jr. whose family knew the Lindberghs, invited the aviator to come to Juneau to address the Legislature on conservation, one of his favorite subjects. When the Hickels learned that Lindbergh was coming, they extended an invitation for him to be their guest in the Govenor’s Mansion. He accepted and stayed a week.

At dinner the evening before he was to address the legislature, Lindbergh asked Mrs. Hickel if “the help” could press his wool serge pants so that he would look presentable for his legislative presentation. Mrs. Hickel immediately consented, although there was no “help” available.

Later that evening, she set up her ironing board in her upstairs bedroom and personally pressed her hero’s very thick and heavy pants. As she worked she thought to herself. “I never imagined when I was growing up and earning extra money working in the cannery at the Anchorage Port, that one day I would be married to the Governor of Alaska, live in the Governor’s House, and iron my hero Charles Lindbergh’s pants!”

As Wally’s business grew, so did the family (1954)
As Wally’s business grew, so did the family (1954)
Ermalee and Wally toured as part of the 1966 gubernatorial campaign.
Ermalee and Wally toured as part of the 1966 gubernatorial campaign.
Carol Brady (right) and Brideen Miller were among several of Ermalee’s close friends who traveled with her as she campaigned for Wally in the 1966 gubernatorial race.
Carol Brady (right) and Brideen Miller were among several of Ermalee’s close friends who traveled with her as she campaigned for Wally in the 1966 gubernatorial race.
The First Couple in the Governor’s Mansion 1966
The First Couple in the Governor’s Mansion 1966