Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield dies at 94

Alaska’s fifth governor to preside over the state died Friday at his home in Anchorage,...
Alaska’s fifth governor to preside over the state died Friday at his home in Anchorage, according to John Pugh, a close friend of the family. He was 94 years old.(Alaska's News Source file)
Published: Nov. 4, 2022 at 11:26 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s fifth governor Bill Sheffield died Friday. He was 94 years old.

Sheffield battled aging and dementia and died at his home in Anchorage, according to John Pugh, a close friend of the family. Sheffield was a Democrat, and served as governor from 1982 to 1986, when Alaska’s economy was booming from the explosion of oil field development on the North Slope.

Sheffield lost the 1986 gubernatorial election to Steve Cowper as the state’s economy was crashing from plunging oil prices and a housing development bust.

Sheffield was born June 26, 1928, in Spokane, Washington, where his family lived on a farm during his childhood, according to a press release written by Margaret Pugh, Molly McCammon — former workers in the Sheffield administration — and Patty Ginsburg.

Sheffield joined the U.S. Air Force (then known as the Army Air Corps) and trained as a radar technician in the years after World War II.

A trip to Alaska in 1953 — when it was still just a territory — saw Sheffield seeking work as a household electric appliance sales and serviceman for Sears Roebuck.

“When his boss said, ‘Bill I want you to go to Alaska’ He was at first like ‘Alaska?” Pugh said.

But from there, it quickly became apparent that Sheffield’s relationship with Alaska was true love.

“When he came here in ‘53, once he was here, Alaska was his home,” Pugh said.

During his early years in Alaska, Sheffield established 19 hotels across the state, crafting the Sheffield Enterprises. According to members of his administration, Sheffield was proud to contribute to the tourism industry in the state.

Sheffield later joined the Jr. Chamber of Commerce, at the time known as the Jaycees, where he gained much of the political acumen and friendships that would later lead to a successful career in politics.

During his time as governor, Sheffield helped the Alaska Permanent Fund grow by around $700 million during his time, and was a big proponent of the Alaska Railroad. While in office, the state took control of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government.

“He cared about all Alaskans and that they could all benefit from being here in Alaska,” Pugh said.

While in office, Sheffield was known for working long hours, often coming in early, staying late and working on the weekends.

“He was single so that made a difference that a lot of times he forgot that a lot of us were married and had kids. But it was more of a joke with those of us who worked with him, that he had a work ethic of working long hours,” Pugh said.

Sheffield was also the subject of a 1985 investigation that accused him of lying about his attempts to influence a contract for office space in Fairbanks for a political ally. The Alaska Legislature began a process to impeach Sheffield, but the Senate Rules Committee ultimately decided not to recommend impeachment.

He was appointed as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Alaska Railroad in April 1995 and became CEO and president in 1997 until leaving in 2012.

Once officially retired, Sheffield spent his final decade with his loved ones — including his dog Carl — fishing around Alaska and traveling around the world.

In addition to Sheffield’s love for adventure, Pugh said he was an avid host, often hosting fundraisers and campaign events at his home.

“He used to have a lot of, like I say, receptions and fundraisers here at the house and things. He was a person who was very gregarious, and enjoyed having friends and family and strangers around, just to have, meet new people,” Pugh said.

His final moments where spent doing just that, Pugh said.

“That’s how his final days were. He were surrounded with friends. And really warm telling stories and trying to keep his comfort levels up,” Pugh said.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy shared his thoughts on Sheffield’s legacy Friday afternoon.

“The First Lady and I express our deepest sympathies to the family of former Governor Bill Sheffield,” Dunleavy wrote. “Originally from Spokane Washington, Sheffield was relocated to the territory of Alaska by Sears Roebuck in 1953 and spent the rest of his days in the state serving his community.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski shared her thoughts on the passing of the former governor in an email.

“Alaskans are saddened by the passing of Bill Sheffield—a tenacious, determined man who spent his life making Alaska a better place for us all. Bill came from humble beginnings and faced a number of challenges throughout his life, which only made him more empathetic to those around him,” Murkowski wrote. “He contributed so much to our state – working in sales and hospitality, serving in the Air Force and as Alaska’s Governor, as well as leading the Alaska Railroad. But equally important to all of his contributions to Alaska, were the relationships he built along the way. Bill was a warm and caring person who will be deeply missed but his friendship will not be forgotten.”