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He's Still Our Uncle Ted

By Heather Lende
Sunday, August 3, 2008; B07

HAINES, Alaska -- When the senior senator from Alaska visited our small town on the Fourth of July weekend, we knew he was under FBI investigation for renovations done on his house near Anchorage by an oilfield services company. We saw pictures of the place on TV. It's not the Taj Mahal. It's not even all that nice by Alaska's challenged architectural standards. It's a ski camp with a daylight basement.

That's part of the reason no one mentioned the trouble. Another is that we were hoping he'd help us pay for a new multimillion-dollar harbor. And yet another, more complicated reason is that in a place where so many of us come from somewhere else, and where friends become family, Sen. Stevens is, for richer or poorer, our Uncle Ted. He was voted Alaskan of the Century at the close of 1999. The Anchorage airport is named after him.

But he did not travel to Haines for our Fourth of July celebration in a flag-fluttering motorcade. There were no dark suits or Ray-Bans either. He wore khakis, a flight jacket and walking shoes and was squired around town in a borrowed minivan by a friend. He arrived early for a veterans appreciation ceremony in a nearby Tlingit Indian village park. He chatted easily with the adult children of old friends, many now gone, with whom he worked to make sure that they and other Alaska Natives got title to their ancestral lands. He patted a stray dog and thanked everyone for inviting him.

That ceremony ended, as many do here, with a prayer. The emcee asked us to raise our hands and bless the citizen-soldiers gathered before us, the fishermen and old loggers, the town guys and Indian village guys, the daughter who is a National Guard medic, and our senator, all the same, as equals.

There, among other old soldiers, mostly Vietnam vets, he didn't mention the Distinguished Flying Cross he earned in World War II flying support missions behind enemy lines in Burma. It was a dangerous operation in which hundreds of crewmen and planes were lost. All Ted told the mayor later was that he had hoped to be a fighter pilot but that it hadn't worked out.

At the reception, rather than quiz him about the politics of money and oil, the war, or climate change, we spoke to one of the most influential men in the country as if he were the groom's great-uncle at a wedding. We mentioned common acquaintances. We said we hoped he got the chance to go fishing. The only one who brought up his age was a gold miner, who, at 88, is four years older than the senator. He was concerned that Ted seemed to be slowing down.

Well, that old miner was still wearing his Stevens campaign ball cap days after the reports on the senator's indictment traveled around this town like the news of a friend's heart attack. "They got Ted," was all anyone had to say. While some may have cheered inwardly, few did openly. Many of us simply felt sad and embarrassed for our Alaskan family.

In Haines alone, Ted has helped fund our public radio station, new library and Native-run health clinic. He has been the patriarch of the 49th state since it was a twinkle in his eye. The other day he spoke on the radio, reminding Alaskans that he has always been there for us and asking that we help him now. It may be too much to expect, but after all these years, it's not too much to ask.

Heather Lende is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska."

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