The picture above is the last picture I took of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. It was taken on August 26th, 2008, at the Egan Center, during the post-primary gathering there. It was Stevens' last political triumph.
I first met Sen. Stevens in the early fall of 1973, in Cordova. I interviewed him (along with Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Don Young) on fishery issues for KLAM-AM radio there. Over the years, I met, talked over the phone and corresponded with Sen. Stevens several times. My notes on his invaluable help in the Whittier Harbor expansion project of 1978-1981 are sealed away in Alaska.
Our last correspondence was a 2006 letter I sent to him, recommending he consider retiring at the end of his 2002-2008 term. For the first time in years, he didn't respond, nor did his office.
There have been some excellent reminiscences and appreciations of Sen. Stevens this week. Perhaps the best is that of former Alaska Sen. Clem Tillion (who also wrote one of the best short article on the legacy of former Alaska Gov, Jay Hammond).
I've got a few Ted Stevens stories. I'll tell one of them now:
In mid-1996, Catherine Stevens and Juliana Osinchuk put together a luncheon at the Petroleum Club at which Sen. Stevens honored some Alaska artists. I was one of them. I got to sit next to Ted as we ate.
We discussed his work then to save the National Endowment of the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Without Stevens, the Newt Gingrich Attilas and Cyril of Alexandrias of the Contract on America era would have eliminated those two programs. I thanked Sen. Stevens for that.
We began talking fly fishing and recent fishing trips. He showed me a picture of himself, with a Cutthroat trout he had recently landed near Ketchikan. I told him that my son and I had recently completed a course in fly tying, and showed him a picture of some of Alex's flies. He was impressed. Alex had just turned seven.
Ted asked if Alex could tie him a couple of flies. I responded positively.
When I told Alex that Sen. Stevens was interested in some flies, he asked who Ted Stevens was. A friend explained that Ted was "the most powerful person in the world." That seemed to impress Alex. He got to work.
After checking on flies for Cutthroats, Alex asked me what I thought Ted might prefer. I called the senator's office. The next day I heard back - a large Royal Coachman.
Alex tied dozens. He told me that he thought an egg-sucking leech might work even better for late summer, so he tied some of those too. And his own inventions.
He spent three weeks' allowance on a "bug luggage" fly mounting case.
Stevens' office soon contacted me, saying that Ted would be in Wasilla for the dedication of a new Federal Legislative Information Office, and that might be a good time for Alex and Ted to meet.
A couple of weeks later, Wasilla Mayor John Stein, who was about to be defeated by Sarah Palin, called me. He said that the dedication was at noon the next day, and that Stevens hoped Alex and I would be there.
The following morning, I went to Tanaina Elementary, where Alex was enrolled in the 2nd grade class of John's wife, the late Karen Marie. After signing him out, we went over to the top floor of Wasilla's tallest bulding for the dedication.
All the local politicians were there: Mayor Stein, City Councilwoman Sarah Palin, Reps. Vic Kohring and Bev Masek, state Sen. Scott Ogan, and others. John told us that Sen. Stevens would ask Alex forward soon after the dedication speeches.
Eventually Sen. Stevens said "I understand there is a young man from Wasilla here who has something he wants to show me."
John took Alex up through the people gathered in front of Stevens. Alex had worked so hard, tied so many flies. He was a bit concerned Stevens wouldn't like them. I had told Alex that Stevens would probably like more than one of the dozen or so flies pinned to their frames inside the bug luggage case, and would pull them out, returning the case - which was Alex's favorite new possession - after he had chosen some.
Ted asked Alex, "What do you have to show us, young man?"
Alex answered tentatively. "Sir, I tied these flies for you to catch some fish." He handed the closed case to Stevens, who chuckled quietly. When the senator opened the case he was genuinely surprised at the numbers and quality of Alex's little gems. He turned the opened case around, so the audience could see them better.
Ted sincerely praised the flies, asking Alex about each type. After the exchange, Ted said, "I've never seen a better fishing fly in my life, Alex. Thank you so much." He clicked the bug luggage shut, and stuffed it into the inside breast pocket of his suit.
Alex's jaw went slack as he almost gasped. I could imagine him thinking "My bug luggage - gone!" John Stein, who was right behind Alex, quickly realized Alex might lose it and sidled up gently to his side as Stevens walked away to shake hands. He turned my son around, patted him on the shoulder and said "Welcome to politics, Alex."
Later, Sen. Stevens sent Alex a package. In it were his bug luggage, a picture of Stevens with a big Rainbow trout, and a gold-embossed "thank-you" note from the senator. The family has treasured the note ever since.
Alex still has the bug luggage.