Sarah Palin and Mike Stepovich attended a ceremony to celebrate Alaska’s 50th anniversary in Anchorage.
Sarah Palin and Mike Stepovich attended a ceremony to celebrate Alaska’s 50th anniversary in Anchorage.
Al Grillo/Associated Press/File 2008

NEW YORK — Mike Stepovich — the last presidentially appointed governor of the territory of Alaska, who helped lobby the US Congress for statehood — died Friday in San Diego. He was 94.

The cause was complications of a fall, said his daughter, Antonia Gore.

Mr. Stepovich bridged Alaska’s past and future, and not just politically. In the late 1890s, his father, Marko, a miner chasing the Klondike gold rush, traveled from his native Yugoslavia to a frontier then called the District of Alaska. Decades later, the miner’s first son had become a lawyer in the growing city of Fairbanks, a representative in the Legislature of the territory of Alaska and, in 1957, at age 38, the governor of the territory, appointed by a fellow Republican, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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Mr. Stepovich’s most memorable achievement in office was that he worked himself out of it.

For years, many Alaskans resisted statehood, uncertain that they wanted the federal involvement that came with it, and members of Congress were uncertain about adding to the federal government’s responsibilities with a 49th state. But Mr. Stepovich lobbied for the cause across Alaska and elsewhere, particularly on Capitol Hill, where he was one of the effort’s most visible faces.

His diplomacy, persistent but warm, was credited with helping to build consensus. On June 9, 1958, with momentum toward statehood peaking, his portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine, along with an illustration of a totem pole.

On June 30, Congress approved a bill granting Alaska statehood. Eisenhower signed it July 7. A month later, Mr. Stepovich resigned.

But he did not lose interest in politics. With Alaska set to become a state in January 1959, five major offices in Alaska were in play in a special election that November: two US Senate seats, a House seat, the governorship, and the post of secretary of state. The only one that Republicans believed they could win was a Senate seat, because Mr. Stepovich sought it.

Vice President Richard Nixon spent three days in Alaska speaking on his behalf. Interior Secretary Fred A. Seaton stayed two weeks. Republicans emphasized that Mr. Stepovich was 39, with a long, presumably bright future, while his Democratic opponent, Ernest Gruening, was 71. He had served 13 years as territorial governor, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Despite the Republican push, Democrats swept all of the offices — the Stepovich-Gruening race was the closest — increasing their margin in the US Senate to 64-34. Mr. Stepovich ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1962, losing a close race to the incumbent, William A. Egan. In 1966, he lost in the Republican primary for governor to Walter J. Hickel, who was elected that fall.

Mike Anthony Stepovich was born in Fairbanks, the only child of Marko and Olga Stepovich. He moved to Oregon with his mother after his parents separated.

He graduated from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., in 1941. (His daughter Nada was a star volleyball player at Gonzaga, where she met John Stockton, a basketball star there. They married, and their son, David, now plays basketball for Gonzaga.) Mr. Stepovich received a law degree from Notre Dame in 1943.

After serving in the US Navy, he returned to Fairbanks to practice law and served in the territorial House and Senate, where he was minority leader and fought Democratic efforts to raise taxes on mining, fishing, and logging. After his political career ended in the 1960s, he practiced law until moving back to Oregon in 1978.

Besides daughters Antonia and Nada, he leaves four other daughters, Maria Greulich, Laura Tramonte, Andrea McGill, and Melissa Cook; seven sons, Michael, Peter, Christopher, Dominic, Theodore, Nicholas, and James; 37 grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; two half sisters; and two half brothers. His wife, the former Matilda Baricevic, died in 2003.

The family had eight children when they moved into the governor’s mansion in Juneau in 1957. Looking back at that time in a 1958 profile in The New York Times, he said he had discovered a black limousine in the mansion’s garage, its license plate bearing a single digit.

“I’m going to have the kids paint some more numbers,” he recalled thinking. “Imagine me with license plate No. 1.”