The Tundra Drums , News Report, Alex Demarban
ANCHORAGE - Year after year they came to Western Alaska—cabinet members, legislators, scientists—piling into small planes and skiffs for an up-close look at the ragged edge of America.
They saw villages that lacked running water and flush toilets, rotting houses built of little more than plywood, and muddy airstrips that people relied on for whatever education, groceries and medicine they could get.
Sometimes these dignitaries traveled in winter, witnessing Alaska at its harshest. And when they returned to D.C. their eyes were opened, and money would flow into these outposts, buying comforts common in the rest of the country.
Bethel leaders say these trips, organized by Stevens, built allies across the aisle who knew rural Alaska needed government help entering the 20th century.
Over the years, billions of dollars flowed into the Bush.
Clinics and training centers opened. Airstrips improved. Houses and community centers were built. And one by one, in an effort that continues today, villagers flushed their own toilet for the first time.
Critics called the largesse pork, but villagers knew Alaska was just catching up with the rest of the country, said Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel. For Stevens's help, rural Alaska will always be grateful.
"He was the guy that helped build rural Alaska," Herron said. "I don't see that as pork, I see that as bringing basic service to communities that needed them."
Consider Bethel, the largest hub city in Western Alaska with 5,600 residents. Throw a stone, and you'll hit something Stevens built.
There's the regional hospital that supports clinics in more than 56 villages, just one example of Alaska's unique tribal health care system.
There's the flight school that in recent years has trained dozens of local people to become pilots, the training center that's producing builders, electricians, and personal care attendants, the seawall erected in the 1970s to protect threatened homes.
Those and scores of other projects are testament to Stevens' passion for lifting lives in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, leaders said. He famously once called plane crashes "the occupational hazard of Alaska politics," but he wasn't afraid to put his life at risk for the people he loved.
Stevens flew to villages in winter, when icy airstrips can make travel interesting. One trip was with his friend, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
"They went in winter where they could see the harsh environment people had to go through, and the honey buckets," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents. "That was something associated with what kind of senator he was. He had good influence of getting other senators and other administrators and cabinet members to come out here first and see why he was fighting so much for rural Alaska."
Stevens' temper attracted critics and publicly established him as the "mean, miserable SOB" he claimed to be.
But rural Alaskans knew him differently.
"What I remember about Ted was that he was always optimistic, always looking forward, always had a smile on his face," said state Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. "But when we watched him fighting for us in D.C. you could see the fierceness in his eyes when debating Alaska issues, whether it was opening ANWR or any other issue he felt strongly about. It was because many in the Lower 48 did not understand or realize what people in Alaska are going through."
He was just Uncle Ted in Western Alaska, where his work led to development of the Native corporations that help power Alaska¡¯s economy today, and the Denali Commission, that has poured $1 billion into rural Alaska in a dozen years, building tank farms, clinics and other facilities.
In Hoffman's mostly Yup¡'ik Senate district, the Denali Commission has built or laid the groundwork for roughly 500 projects total, officials said.
"Stevens is the largest pillar of Alaska politics," Hoffman said.
One campaign year not too long ago, though he was shoo-in for re-election, he hopped in a skiff and stumped in villages along the Kuskokwim River between Bethel and McGrath.
"He never stopped talking about that," Hoffman said.
On those and other village visits, he was a "rock star," but it never went to his head, said George Cannellos, a former federal co-chair of the Denali Commission.
He signed T-shirts, mugged for cameras, and asked people about their lives.
Ever a server, during his last campaign call in Bethel in 2008, he flipped hamburgers for hundreds of people gathered outside the hospital he had built.
Getting the money for that hospital was no easy task, said Hoffman, a former top official with the hospital in the 1970s.
At the time, Stevens said the federal government hadn't fully funded a Native-run hospital in decades. But Stevens persisted, and worked closely with Hoffman and others, to get money for a new facility.
"It was the first fully funded Indian Health Service hospital built in many, many decades," said Hoffman.
Early on, he also won funding to pay for hospital employees, said Dan Winkelman, the hospital's current vice president.
Today, the tribally run health care system in Alaska, with the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage as its crown jewel, is a model for tribes around the nation, Winkelman said.
The system is unique in part because of another law Stevens passed, creating a unique management format consisting of tribal members from across the state, said Winkelman. Stevens' money also built that hospital.
Herron said Stevens was very personable.
"It wasn't about how the world revolved around Sen. Stevens," he said.
Stevens created bypass mail, an Alaska-only U.S. Postal Service program that subsidized shipping in the roadless Bush, lowering the cost of groceries.
"He was our go-to guy for basic infrastructure to help the people of Alaska," Herron said.
In the later years leading up to his 2008 loss to Sen. Mark Begich, Stevens focused on telemedicine ¨h allowing patients in villages to get a doctor's opinion in the city by an immediate video-link, Winkelman said.
Another big interest: Getting affordable technology into airplanes.
Dick Harding came to Alaska as a pilot in the 1970s, and often landed on short, muddy runways with limited lighting and little navigational support.
Stevens created an Alaska Supplemental Fund to build rural airports, said Harding, formerly with the Medallion Foundation, a Stevens-created organization focused on air safety.
Stevens won money improved the airports, and, under the Capstone Project launched in Bethel and Southeast, ¡°put satellite navigation in commercial aircraft,¡± Harding said.
That program will be used across the nation.
Alaska will probably never see another leader like Stevens.
When Winkelman heard of Stevens' death on Aug. 9, he remembered the time in 2007 when he shuttled Stevens around Bethel in a YKHC vehicle.
"He was sitting right next to me," Winkelman said.
Winkelman asked: "All the four decades you have been in the Senate, what do you love best about your job?"
Stevens looked at Winkelman, and leaned closer.
"Finding solutions," he said.