William A. Egan : biography
William Allen Egan (October 8, 1914 – May 6, 1984) was an American Democratic politician. He served as the first Governor of the State of Alaska from January 3, 1959 to 1966, and the fourth Governor from 1970 to 1974. Born in Valdez, Alaska, Egan is the only governor in the state’s history to have been born in Alaska.
- Egan was awarded as "Alaskan of the Year" in 1971, and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree the following year from the University of Alaska.
- October 8 is now William Egan Day in Alaska.
- The William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage is named in his honor.
Early childhood and adulthood
The child of a working-class mining family of six children in Valdez, Egan was raised by his mother Cora following his father William’s death in an avalanche in 1920. By age 10, Egan was working in a local cannery, helping to support his struggling family. Thanks to the lack of driving laws in the Alaska Territory during the 1920s, Egan learned to drive at an early age, shuttling tourists around during summer months. By the age of 14, Egan was driving dump trucks for the Alaska Road Commission. Following his graduation as a valedictorian from Valdez High School in 1932, and began an interest in politics.
Egan’s godfather, Anthony Dimond, a local Valdez lawyer, two-time mayor and member of the Alaska Senate, ran as a Democrat for the territory’s nonvoting delegate to the federal U.S. House of Representatives the same year. Despite the position’s inability to vote due to the Tennessee Plan, a nonvoting delegate could address other House members and lobby for both bills and statehood. Dimond won the race, introducing the young Egan, who viewed Dimond as his mentor, to territorial and federal politics. Dimond would send copies of Congressional Record back to Egan in Valdez for reading.
Following on his godfather’s footsteps, Egan ran successfully as the Democratic candidate from Valdez in the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives in 1940, a post he would hold until 1945. He won three more terms to the House from 1947 to 1953. On November 16, 1940, Egan married Desdia Neva McKittrick (October 3, 1914 – January 19, 2011), a recent arrival to Valdez from Kansas. They had one child, a son, Dennis. During World War II, where Alaska’s own Aleutian Islands saw bloody combat between American and Imperial Japanese forces, Egan continued his political career. While still serving in the House of Representatives, Egan was elected as Mayor of Valdez in 1946. In 1953, Egan was elected to the Alaska Territorial Senate.
Alaska’s Constitutional Convention
Following the end of the war, the Territory of Alaska’s political and geographical isolation was coming to an end. The construction of the Alaska Highway now linked the territory to the Lower 48 states and Canada, plus an increased military presence due to the Cold War with the neighboring Soviet Union had also brought the territory closer to the rest of North America.
In 1955, the Alaska Legislature ordered the creation of a constitutional convention to seek a state constitution suitable for Congressional approval. The convention met at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in November. Territorial Senator Egan was chosen to lead the body in drafting a new state document. Following the end of the convention a year later, the Alaska Constitution was sent to Alaskans as part of a referendum in 1958, passing easily. The statehood issue was turned over to the U.S. Congress later that year, passing by only one vote. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the resulting Alaska Statehood Act into law. Alaska was to become the 49th state.
Scheduled to become a U.S. state on January 3, 1959, Egan decided to run as the first state governor. Egan won the race, becoming governor upon the state’s admission. During his first governorship, Egan supervised the transition of Alaska’s territorial bureaucracy into a state government. Egan also encouraged investment into the U.S.’s newest state, noting its slowly growing oil and tourist industries. During the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, Egan supervised and directed the state’s response to the disaster, an earthquake that still remains one of the strongest earthquakes of the modern era.
Leaving the governorship in 1966, Egan was elected again in 1970, serving a second term until 1974. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the 1973 Oil Crisis in response to the Yom Kippur War played a large role in Egan’s second governorship, as oil’s demand increasingly played a role in the state’s politics. In the later months of 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, an act to reduce American dependence on Arab oil. Many environmental politicians in the state bitterly opposed this federal legislation during the second Egan governorship.
Following Egan’s departure from the governorship in 1974, Egan retired from public and political life. He died 10 years following leaving office on May 6, 1984 at the age of 69 from lung cancer.The Associated Press. "State tributes mount for Bill Egan, 69", Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. May 7, 1984. Page A1.