The death of Vic Fischer on Oct. 22 at age 99 closed a chapter in Alaska’s history. Fischer is best remembered as the last surviving delegate to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention in 1955-56, but his remarkable life spanned important periods in world history, as well as for Alaska.
His early years were spent in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s and included time in pre-Nazi Berlin. His father, Louis Fischer, was a well-known American journalist who covered the early Soviet era for U.S. newspapers.
Vic’s early life under Stalin and Hitler’s early years is best told in his biography, “From Russia with Love,” written with Charles Wohlforth, and which I recommend.
For many of us, Vic provided a valuable window into what Alaska was like before statehood. He also became a kind of compass for the values of striving for the public good held by Alaska’s early leaders. Vic was one of those, with his deep involvement in the statehood movement along with the formation of municipal government in Anchorage.
We have him to thank, for example, for developing Anchorage’s early plans that included public land tracts in the city like the land where Alaska Pacific University now sits. He also helped persuade the city fathers at the time to preserve Anchorage’s popular park strip, a former wartime airstrip, for recreation. This was against the desires of local businessmen wanting to build housing, which was badly needed at the time.
Another of Vic’s accomplishments was his role in the 1960s as founder of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), the university’s venerable public policy think tank. Over the years, ISER has been involved in research on most of Alaska’s important public policy issues and state legislators paid attention.
What struck me about Vic’s early leadership at ISER was that he was not afraid to employ young, independent economists who documented important and unpopular facts about some of the boondoggles Alaska politicians were promoting. The Institute was on UA’s Fairbanks campus at the time (it is now at the University of Alaska Anchorage) and I remember Fairbanks businessmen putting intense, but unsuccessful, pressure on university leaders to fire Vic and one of his economists, Arlon Tussing.
I also remember Vic’s views that ISER’s research should be relevant and user-friendly for the public. He hired writers and journalists like myself to write on complex topics in terms ordinary people could understand. Judy Brady, a former reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, wrote one of the first papers published that explained new complications for Alaska public lands and the emerging Alaska Native land claims movement.
Oil was also becoming a topic of interest at the time and Vic hired me to write a paper, also published, on the state’s role in oil and gas conservation regulation. This function is now performed by the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Vic and ISER also helped organize the Alaska Science Conference in 1969 at UAF, where the prime topic was how to build the trans-Alaska oil pipeline safely through permafrost, which could be melted by the hot oil in the line. The conference became a forum for university researchers and industry officials to talk through these problems and out of this came an informal partnership, which led to engineering concepts to solve those problems. It allowed the pipeline to be approved by the federal government and to be built.
Vic had a long public service career that included terms in the state Senate, and I’ll leave it to others to recount his legislative accomplishments. However, I will always remember an interview with Vic I did years ago in which he described the political environment of pre- and post-statehood Alaska, which seems so different than what we have today.
As difficult as those years were, with a threadbare economy and costs that were sky-high, Alaska was an exciting place to be, Vic told me. Statehood was in the air and the possibilities for a new state, Alaska, so long under the federal government’s boot, was a huge lure for talented, energetic young people.
It wasn’t the economy or the prospect of boom-time jobs that attracted people, Vic explained, but the opportunity for a young person to be on the ground floor when something brand new was created with what seemed unlimited possibilities — a new state. What fueled this was sheer hope, because no one had money at the time.
It was decades later when we talked, but Vic’s excitement for Alaska’s future still showed. He never really lost that, either, even as big oil money changed the state and, in my opinion, corrupted many of the values early Alaska leaders held.
Vic never lost faith, though.
Source: Anchorage Daily News