March 11, 2014

Former Alaska Gov., owner of Soapy Smith's Pioneer restaurant, Mike Stepovich, passes.

Mike Stepovich loved his restaurant!
(Click image to enlarge)

ike Stepovich, former governor of pre-statehood Alaska, owner of Soapy Smith's Pioneer Restaurant and Soapy Smith's Pull Tabs (lottery tickets) in Fairbanks, Alaska, and fan of Soapy, passed away February 14, 2014. He was 94-years-old. I regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting him. I did thank him once, via mail, for helping to continue the legacy of Soapy Smith. 


Stepovich services scheduled for Friday in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS — Services for former Alaska territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich will be held Friday in Fairbanks, with a funeral Mass followed by a reception at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Stepovich, who died Feb. 14 at 94, was born in Fairbanks and was elected locally to three terms in the Alaska Territorial Legislature. He and his wife, Matilda, raised their 13 children in the community.

He became a national figure after being appointed as Alaska’s territorial governor by President Eisenhower in 1957. The 38-year-old Stepovich was the first governor born in Alaska and became one of the key figures in the push for statehood.

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Cathedral, with Archbishop Roger Schwietz and Bishop Donald Kettler con-celebrating. Burial will follow at Birch Hill Cemetery.

The Mass will be open to the public. Visitors will include Gov. Sean Parnell, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, former Gov. Frank Murkowski and Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty.

A public reception is planned at 1 p.m. at the UAF Wood Center. The gathering will include a video presentation with highlights from Stepovich’s life and public service, said his daughter Antonia Stepovich Gore.

Limited parking will be available behind the University of Alaska Museum of the North, with heated shuttles available for visitors going to the Wood Center.

A Rosary and viewing also will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at Immaculate Conception Church. The Rosary is a devotional practice that is a part of the Catholic period of mourning and is open to those who wish to participate.

Alaska State Troopers will lead small processionals to the Rosary service, Mass and cemetery, Sgt. Brian Wassman said. (Feb. 26, 2014)

The restaurant's memorial to Mike
(Click image to enlarge)


Reaction to former Gov. Stepovich's death underscores his impact in Alaska.

FAIRBANKS — Mike Stepovich will go down in history as one of the key figures in Alaska’s push for statehood, but family members say it’s become clear in the past two weeks that his legacy extends beyond that distinction.

In a corner at Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant, a small memorial is filled with old photos, magazines and mementos in memory of Stepovich, the Fairbanks-born attorney who died Feb. 14. At age 94, he was the last living territorial governor.

Most notable, perhaps, is a guest book that has steadily filled with dozens of condolences and fond memories from visitors. The greetings come from around the world and across the political spectrum.

“We are all overwhelmed, our whole family, by the love and support and care from Alaska,” said his son, Nick, who owns Soapy Smith’s. “We’re certainly all growing up with the passing of my dad.”

Stepovich’s 13 children and 37 grandchildren have arrived from around the country for today’s funeral Mass, scheduled for 11 a.m. at Sacred Heart Cathedral. A reception will follow at 1 p.m. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Wood Center, with parking and a shuttle available behind the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Those expected to be in attendance include Gov. Sean Parnell, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Gov. Frank Murkowski. But for the Stepovich family members who arrived in Fairbanks for the services — as of Wednesday, there were 88 and counting — there’s an obvious pride that goes beyond politics.

Born in 1919 at St. Joseph’s Hospital to an immigrant gold miner from Montenegro, Stepovich moved to Oregon as a boy with his mother when his parents separated. He was raised in Portland and married there, but returned to the Interior after earning his law degree from Notre Dame University and spending a tour in the Navy.

“Fairbanks was his hometown,” Nick said. “This is where he raised his family.”

Stepovich and his wife, Matilda, who died in 2003, settled in the Slaterville neighborhood. The Stepovich children — Antonia, Maria, Michael, Peter, Christopher, Dominic, Theodore, Nick, James, Laura, Nada, Andrea and Melissa — all grew up in Fairbanks and attended local Catholic schools, within walking distance of their home.

“Hit the books and hit the rail,” was a favorite piece of advice for the children, referring to the altar railing where Catholics take communion.

The home was busy and warm, the children remembered, but when money or discipline was being discussed at the dinner table, the parents would speak in Croatian to keep the kids from following the conversation.

“That’s when we knew something was up,” Nick said.

All of the children went on to college, largely at well-known Catholic institutions like Marquette, Notre Dame, Gonzaga or Georgetown. The elder Stepovich made a point in paying entirely for their schooling, Maria said, part of a lifelong emphasis on education and faith.

“He always said his biggest accomplishment would be if all his children made it to heaven,” Antonia said.

During a Wednesday gathering at Soapy Smith’s, several of his children relished telling stories to illustrate his colorful life. He was noted for his tight-knit family, his skill as an attorney and his athletic talent.

Nick strolled through the restaurant, pointing out photos of his father posing with politicians, surrounded by kids or smiling on the cover of a magazine.

Stepovich served as a coach for the Fairbanks Goldpanners baseball team in the 1960s, and a picture shows him with the 1964 team, which included eight future major leaguers, including Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.

Stepovich passed up a chance to shoot for a baseball career himself. As a young man in Portland, Stepovich was invited by the Boston Red Sox for a tryout, but his mother quickly nixed any plans for the pros.

“His mother said, ‘No son of mine is going to be a bum,’” Maria said.

His well-intentioned reputation for offering advice — sometimes unsolicited — was well-earned, Antonia said. She still recalls some of his input after she announced her plans to marry.

“Daddy said, ‘Do you like him?’ I said, ‘Oh daddy, I love him,’” Antonia said. “He said, ‘You better like him, because you’re going to spend the rest of your life with him.’”

Maria and Antonia laugh as they tell the story of their father giving a pep-talk to a young singer he sat next to on a flight, encouraging her to pursue her dreams. Only when she was greeted by an entourage at the gate did he learn she was Whitney Houston.

“He had absolutely no idea who she was, but he gave her a lot of good advice,” Maria said with a smile.

And, of course, there are political stories. Stepovich became the state’s youngest and first Alaska-born governor when President Eisenhower appointed him to the position in 1957.

The warm, handsome governor became a key advocate for statehood. He made appearances on “Tonight with Jack Paar,” and “What’s My Line?” during his frequent trips to push for statehood, and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

He even won over Eisenhower, who was an early skeptic of the necessity for a 49th state.

“Ike treated him like a son,” Nick said. “He felt like Eisenhower mentored him through the whole process.”

Alaska was a strongly Democratic state at the time, and Stepovich was unsuccessful in subsequent runs for U.S. Senate and governor. But he remained active in Republican politics, including his memorable role as a delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention, which nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president.

Stepovich thought Goldwater was a good man but an unelectable candidate. He cast his vote instead for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, prompting a woman from the Arizona delegation to bonk him on the head with her purse, Antonia said. That triggered a fracas between Goldwater and Rockefeller supporters, which famously ended with news anchor John Chancellor being whisked off the floor by security.

Stepovich’s intuition turned out to be right — Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.

With his departure, Nick said, more than a few visitors this week have mentioned that one of the last links to those early years of statehood has been broken.

“It’s the end of an era,” Nick said with a sad smile. (Feb. 28. 2014)

Mike Stepovich/Pioneer Restaurant
December 19, 2008
May 06, 2011
May 23, 2011
May 09, 2012
June 14, 2012

"You can't cheat an honest man." One of the things that makes the grifter so successful is people's willingness to jump on a sure fire thing and desiring to cheat the cheat. A flash of a paper ball underneath a bottlecap, a turned up corner on a card in Three Card Monte. Things like these have emptied out the pockets of many and helped to make men like Jefferson Randolph Smith II very rich. Yep I am enjoying 'Alias Soapy Smith : the Life and Death of a Scoundrel.'
—Roger Smith


1791: Samuel Mulliken becomes the first person to receive more than one patent from the U.S. Patent Office.
1824: The U.S. War Department creates the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Seneca Indian Ely Parker becomes the first Indian to lead the Bureau.
1847: John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman dies in Allen County, Indiana. This day becomes known as Johnny Appleseed Day.
1861: A Confederate Convention is held in Montgomery, Alabama, where a new constitution is adopted.
1865: The forces of Union General William Sherman occupy Fayetteville, North Carolina.
1867: a pony express-type route is established between Helen, Montana Territory and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
1881: US. Army Engineer Paymaster Alexander Smith is robbed of the payroll near Florence, Alabama by three bandits identified as outlaw Jesse James, Frank James, and "Wild Bill" Ryan. They relieve Smith of $500 in gold, $4,500 in currency, his watch, and $221 from his purse. They force him to accompany them until midnight, at which time they return his watch, overcoat, and $21 cash and release him.
1882: The Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association is formed in Princeton, New Jersey.
1884: Gambler Ben Thompson and lawman John King Fisher are murdered in a hail of gunfire while attending a show at the Vaudeville Variety Theater in San Antonio, Texas. There was a public outcry for a grand jury indictment of those involved, however, no action is ever taken.
1887: The local Cheyenne, Wyoming newspaper reports that Calamity Jane is in town.
1887: Major Benteen, of Little Bighorn fame, is discharged from military service after being court-martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer. The charge includes entering a store at Fort Du Chesne, Utah, intoxicated, quarreling with civilians and exposing himself.
1888: The "Blizzard of '88" begins to rage along the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard shutting down communications and transportation lines. More than 400 people die before the storm ends on March 14.
1890: Lieutenant Watson reports two Indians slain and three captured in a battle with the 4th Cavalry near Salt River, Arizona Territory.
1901: U.S. Steel is formed when industrialist J. P. Morgan purchases Carnegie Steep Corporation. The event makes Andrew Carnegie the richest man in the world.
1907: President Theodore Roosevelt induces California to revoke its anti-Japanese legislation.

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