By Marilyn (Patterson) Bushre
When I was working in Governor Hickel’s office in Juneau in 1991 as a Special Assistant, one day First Lady Ermalee Hickel wandered down to my office. She told me that when she was First Lady in the 1960s, she had her youngest sons, Joe and Karl at home, and she was unable to get involved with many of the issues that interested and concerned her.
Not only did she love Governor Hickel, she loved Alaska and everything about Alaska. She was wondering what she could do during the Governor’s second term to focus her energy on encouraging and helping the Alaska people.
She felt that one of her responsibilities was the Governor’s house. When they were in Juneau before, she had had to stand on a chair to turn on the lights and they often didn’t have heat. The historic mansion was in “terrible repair.” In 1991, however, the Governor’s house had been renovated and repaired, and she felt that one of her missions was to let everyone know that it belonged to the people of Alaska.
“I not only want it to be beautiful; I want everyone to enjoy it,” she told me. This part of her mission was already in progress and three or four times a week, the Hickels welcomed the people of Alaska into the Governor’s Mansion. The chef prepared cookies and other munchies and all types of snacks, and she opened the mansion doors to everyone.
She surprised the staff by answering the door to the mansion herself. If someone just walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell, she would answer it and chitchat. Sometimes, the unannounced guests would be local business people or visitors to the state, but she would always open the door herself and was never concerned at all about security.
With regard to events and activities outside of Alaska, she had little interest in attending Presidential Inaugurations or First Ladies’ programs or Governors’ conferences. She preferred instead to travel within the state. Her heart and concern focused on Alaska and Alaska’s people.
In Juneau, she would walk all around the small capital city, going into shops and visiting with the proprietors and customers. Often she would meet teachers who would invite her to visit a classroom, and she would have me drive her in a big old station wagon. As far as she was concerned, that old, clunky car was “perfectly fine” as we drove around visiting schools. When asked if she would like to read a book to the children, she always had a copy with her of a favorite children’s book “Are You My Mother?”
She would visit with the children and go into the teachers’ lounge and talk with the teachers and sometimes the principal. When she traveled across the state, she would always visit the schools and she visited every one of the Pioneers’ Homes several times a year. In Juneau, every week or two, she would have lunch at one of the senior centers. It was a $3 lunch. They always welcomed her warmly, and she would sit with everybody, chitchatting and getting to know the residents and their views. People would love to go up to her and say hello and talk to her. She was very approachable and a wonderful listener. People would just talk and share their concerns. She was like the classic “lovely person” who lives next door.
Once the people began to realize that they had her ear and that she was sincerely interested in what was going on, they would tell her about problems or issues that they faced. One specific example was that people in Alaska with severe disabilities could be taken care of in a hospital or institution and Medicare and other programs would help pay the costs. However, in many cases the families cherished and loved their family members and wanted to take care of them at home. But, in order to do this they might need special equipment and other costly services that were not paid for with the help of government funds. In those cases, she was able to get the attention of Alaska state government and the individuals who could check into these problems.
As a result of her advocacy, a number of administrative laws and regulations were changed so people could take care of their seriously-disabled or mentally-disabled children or adults at home and get the support they needed. It turned out that this approach was much more cost-effective than having these individuals in institutions. More important, the families were able to have their loved ones at home and take care of them as only a family can.
Ermalee Hickel has a strong sense of justice, and she didn’t hesitate to bring these problems to the attention of the Governor, his staff and others responsible in the agencies. In fact, sometimes before a sensitive issue surfaced publicly, once Mrs. Hickel began talking about it, it would get fixed in a hurry.
As a result, she became an unofficial advocate for Alaska’s people. What’s more, she never, ever took credit for anything. The people and the press had no idea what she was up to. She was all about making sure the right things happened for the people or Alaska, and if necessary, she was going to get the system fixed.
She would often visit a facility in downtown Juneau called the Glory Hole, a place for the homeless. It was run by a wonderful lady named Ellen who, at some point in her life, had been homeless and had slept outside in a tent. The program helped both homeless and elderly people write resumés, find jobs, or sometimes just get a hot meal. Ermalee would often go to the Glory Hole, stand in line for lunch, and talk with the others to find out how they were doing. Then she would sit there with elderly folks of all backgrounds and visit with them. Here was the First Lady of Alaska having the same lunch, wanting to know how they were doing and what they needed.
She also went to correctional systems as she was concerned about adolescents who were incarcerated. She would go in, visit, have lunch with them, and encourage them to make better choices and change their lives. She was everywhere, although she didn’t seek media coverage and the people of Alaska didn’t know it. She just felt it was her role as First Lady. God gave her the circumstances where she didn’t have a young family to care for, and she felt like the Alaska people were her mission. That was what she wanted to do.
While Governor Hickel was busy tackling the larger, more public, issues, such as the resolution of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, Ermalee had the people in her focus. She loved to go to mostly Native villages when invited and always attended the Alaska Federation of Natives conventions and the Juneau Centennials – the annual celebrations hosted by the Tlingit and Haida people of Southeast Alaska. She treasured the Alaska Native people.
I remember people saying, “Oh, you came to our village?” They were surprised that she wanted to be there, visit their schools, and talk to everyone who wanted her ear. She truly loved Alaska’s Native people and made them an important focus in her life. When they asked her to visit, she always did. That became her priority.
During these visits, she would ask what they needed and how they were doing. They would tell her many things. That was how she discovered that fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) was a huge problem in Alaska. As a result, she would talk about it wherever she went. She made public service announcements for both radio and TV, warning pregnant mothers to stay away from drugs and alcohol and “not even have one drink when you’re pregnant.” At that time, FAS was unknown to most of the general public, but the media helped, and with Ermalee’s leadership the message got out for the well-being of Alaska’s children.
Her other focus was senior citizens. At the time, scam groups were calling or writing seniors and convincing them to contribute money to bogus causes and organizations. She told seniors across the state not to listen to these people who were trying to steal their money.
It was a great joy for me to accompany the First Lady on her trips. Whenever the people of a village would invite her, she would always accept. They would always meet the flight, and yet they were always surprised that she actually came.
One time in a classroom, Ermalee was asked by one of the children, “Who is that tall lady back there?’
The student was referring to me as I am 6 foot 1 inch tall. I was so honored when Mrs. Hickel replied, “That’s my friend, Marilyn.” She would always say to me, “We’re Mutt ‘n Jeff.” I’d say, “Who’s Jeff and who’s Mutt?” She always said, “I’m Mutt. We’re Mutt ‘n Jeff.” She never said that I was her staff assistant. I was her friend. I still feel that way today. She continues to treat me as her friend after all these years.
Apparently, Mrs. Hickel wanted to be a teacher when she was a young girl, however, she married early and had six sons, but she definitely was a teacher. .
Ermalee Hickel loved the fact that she had the chance as First Lady to meet people and help them in some small way, even if it was only to encourage them and give them a boost in whatever their endeavor.
Though she didn’t actually get to be a teacher in life, she told me that she felt very blessed that as First Lady, God gave her the opportunity to visit with and meet people and to listen to them and give them a bit of encouragement. That was where her heart was.
Years earlier in 1970, when she and Secretary Hickel returned from Washington, DC after he left President Nixon’s cabinet, she was interviewed by Joette Getse, a reporter for the Anchorage Times. Ermalee told Ms. Getse that of all the persons she met in Washington the one that most impressed her was Marguerite Selden, an educator with the District of Columbia school board.
Because of Mrs. Selden’s enthusiasm and work, Ermalee said she always tried to assist her whenever she had a request or a problem. “To me greatness has nothing to do with intelligence or power,“ she said, “but it has everything to do with warmth, integrity, and a willingness to do something for others”.
The Hickels at Barrow on the North Slope-1994.