Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield visits the Elmo Sackett studios and Alaska Public Media in December of 2017. Standing next to Sackett’s portrait, Sheffield said, “I gave him some of the money to build this place.” (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)
Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield has a book out. It’s called “Bill Sheffield: A memoir from the Great Depression to the Governor’s Mansion and Beyond.”
And the title kind of says it all. The autobiography chronicles Sheffield’s beginnings as the son of a farmer in the Great Depression, to when he arrived in Alaska in the 1950s, to his term as governor from 1982 to 1986. Sheffield was also CEO of the Alaska Railroad and director of the Port of Anchorage.
Sheffield spoke about the book and his life with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove.
Grove: So if you don’t mind, tell me when were you born? And where did you come from?
Sheffield: Well, I was born in 1928 and in Spokane, Wash., and the deep Depression. And then of course the war come along and I joined the U.S.. Air Force. When I got out of the service, the jobs weren’t really plentiful, but I got a job with Sears Roebuck. One day the big boss come and he said, “Sheffield I’ve been looking for you.” He said, “I want you to go to Alaska next month and start TV sales and service in the territory.” And I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, rather gruffly. “What do you mean, ‘You don’t know?’” And I said, “I’ll go.” So that’s how I got here in 1953. Come by steamship from Seattle to Seward, rode the train up to Anchorage, never turned back.
Grove: You know, we had this big earthquake the other day [Nov. 30, 2018] and I gather that that was something you went through in [Alaska’s Good Friday earthquake in] 1964, and I just wondered, how did this one compare to 1964?
Sheffield: Yeah, I had just come back to Anchorage from Palm Springs, where I was for a couple of weeks, and the next morning the earthquake come. And, boy, my house was swaying from right to left and around. And the one in ’64 lasted 5 minutes. I had a lot of memories that day. A bunch of us were in the Travelodge at 3rd and Barrow, this brand new hotel, and we’re going to open up the next day, and we’re getting the whiskey and the bar set up, the tables and had people still laying carpet upstairs. And the earthquake started and the thing started to go crazy. And so my pregnant bookkeeper and myself, we crawled out to the sidewalk on Third Avenue, and the rest of the crew went out to the alley but they come back and joined us because the alley gave way. And then the street opened up right in front of us. And so I’ve been through two of them now and — It’s not fun. I think the worst part of it is when it’s all over and we get those aftershocks, you know, you don’t know if this is going to do it again.
Grove: What’s your sense of how being the governor of Alaska has changed from when you were doing it to now?
Sheffield: Well when I was elected governor the money in those years was just pouring in. And the Legislature was spending the money as fast as they could. So when I got there, the first thing was the Legislature said, ‘Well governor, this is how it is: For the budget or the capital budget, the Senate gets a third and the house gets a third, and you get a third if you’re there in time.” And I said, “I I don’t think so.” I always tell my friends I would like to vote for somebody once again that made a payroll. You think different, you know, you’ve got to protect your employees and you can’t fool around with the money. And so in ’86 my re-election year. The oil prices went to eight dollars a barrel. So I cut the budget. And I got fired but that’s okay. You got to do what you got to do to protect Alaskans and being governor. You can help somebody every day, help people, and so it’s a great job. It’s the best job in the world being governor of Alaska, and I miss it. Sometimes I tell my friends I think I’ll run again, but of course I’m not going to do that. But because it’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job if you do it, right.
Grove: Forgive me for asking this but I just wanted to ask you what did you put in the book about the the grand jury recommendation that you be impeached and any of that stuff?
Sheffield: Yeah, that’s a sorry part of my life, but one day in Fairbanks about 7:30 in the morning, and in those days, I was trying to combine services like in Anchorage and Fairbanks, sort of one-stop shopping you don’t have to go here, over here, to deal with the state of Alaska. So I said well we ought to take a look at that building, so we so we did, we took a look at it, and we thought we would lease that building. Well, I didn’t know — and I didn’t care if I’d have known, but some people had donated money to my campaign owned that building, a piece of it. Well, I never thought anything about it. So what? I mean. I made my money before I ran for governor. I didn’t need any more, so– and I wasn’t a crook. So it was all about– that’s how it started and it got away, got away from me. I didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on because I had other things to do in government. And so a lawyer got active on it,. and then that didn’t work so he turned it over to the state and we went through that process and nothing happened and got out of it and everybody spent a lot of money and a lot of time on it. And and so that’s a sorry, sorry spot and in my life, but looking back, I don’t know what I could have done about it.
Grove: What do you think was your greatest accomplishment when you were governor?
Sheffield: The first thing I did was change the time zones in Alaska. So we had one time zone. We had three. People liked that. We bought the Alaska Railroad from the federal government. That’s a major piece of legislation that we had to work, within Alaska and the federal government a lot of trips to Washington D.C. Willie Hensley was a state senator at the time. He and I spent three years getting monuments changed and things to happen and so we could start the Red Dog Mine. As of maybe six months ago, the Red Dog Mine has sifted off well over a billion dollars to the other native corporations. I’ve had a good life. I I have a lucky life and, lucky enough to have my parents would come up and visit me from Bremerton, Wash., and they knew I was doing well and they were, they were proud of me. They had a nice wife, Leigh, and she died of cancer. Our daughter died of the same thing a couple years later. So I’ve been through all of that and I’ve made some mistakes in my life and– Grove: Haven’t we all. Sheffield: I guess so, yeah, to be normal I suppose you have to do that. Anyway, Alaska’s been good. It is good. We’re lucky we live here.