Longtime Anchorage civic activist and trailblazing politician Arliss Sturgulewski died Thursday, her family said. She was 94.
Raising a young son after her husband died in a plane crash, Sturgulewski became involved in Anchorage politics in the 1970s and later served as a state senator for more than a decade, shaping important institutions of modern Alaska with a collaborative, moderate approach.
In 1986 she became the first Alaska woman to head the ticket for a major political party’s gubernatorial campaign.
The moderate Republican’s campaign slogan: “Let’s just call her Governor.”
She lost that campaign and another run for governor in 1990 but remained active in Alaska public life until the end, said her daughter-in-law Carol Sturgulewski: On Monday, she voted in the city municipal election. On Tuesday, she was hospitalized after a gradual decline in health.
In a statement Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Sturgulewski’s “commitment to building a civic-minded Alaska will be remembered.”
He ordered that U.S. and Alaska state flags fly at half-staff at a date not yet determined to honor Sturgulewski.
Sturgulewski was born in Ferndale, Washington, in 1927. After putting herself through the University of Washington, she drove the Alaska Highway on an adventurous vacation with a friend and stayed.
In a 2002 interview with the Daily News, Sturgulewski explained how she got involved with politics.
“A woman of my generation, most of us had a college education and we worked, but we married and when children came, we generally stayed home,” she said. “For a lot of us, you needed some kind of an outlet that meant something, other than PTA and Cub Scouts.”
A League of Women Voters meeting convinced her that “people could affect change and make things happen.” After that, “people started appointing me to things,” she said.
In the 1970s, she served as a commission that oversaw the merger of the city and borough of Anchorage. She was elected to the Anchorage Assembly and later served in the Alaska state Senate from 1978 to 1993. Her work helped shape many facets of modern Alaska, including inflation-proofing of the Permanent Fund and establishment of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said her son Roe Sturgulewski.
Her involvement in politics introduced her to so many people that traveling with her, it sometimes felt like every other passenger on a flight knew her.
“She was a true people person,” he said.
Sturgulewski was known as a moderate Republican who supported Anchorage equal rights ordinances and abortion rights. She was not afraid to reach across party lines in a way that is now uncommon, her son said.
“I think that that is an admirable way of governing. And I wish there was more of it in the world now,” he said.
In retirement, Sturgulewski served on the boards of nonprofits and educational institutions around the state, including Sheldon Jackson College and the University of Alaska School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She was among the first class to be inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, in 2009.
Sturgulewski said his mother exemplified the idea that “participating for a common good is a worthy approach.”