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Fairbanks' Fifty Years of Statehood
From Small-Town Reporter to
Alaska's First Senator
By Theresa Bakker
January 2, 2009

NOT JUST A SUMMER JOB

Sarah Palin may have played up her roots as a sportscaster on the campaign trail last fall, but most politicians don't brag about their connections to the media. It hasn't always been that way. One of Alaska's first senators started his career as a reporter in Fairbanks.

Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett was Alaska's Territorial Delegate during the decade before statehood, but as a young man in the summer of 1924 looking for a way to launch his working life, he wrote stories for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Like it is with any summer job, Bartlett was ready for something else by the time the leaves began to turn, so he quit the paper the following year to enroll at UCLA in California. He studied Spanish and other subjects at the university, but was discouraged when he came up short at the end of the term in both marks and money. He decided to return to Fairbanks.

"On a cold and clear January day in 1926," according to Claus-M. Naske's book Bob Bartlett of Alaska, he "once again went to work as a reporter."

For the next decade Bartlett scrambled to fill the newspaper's columns. Wire service was sketchy, communications were spotty, and the staff was skeletal. To make matters worse, the young reporter's duties weren't limited to news gathering. He had to sell advertising to the businessmen on his rounds as well.

Although he worried about his future, not wanting to settle for a dead-end career as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, Bartlett still enjoyed the challenge. Economic times were good. The Fairbanks Exploration Company had bought several stretches of placer gold-mining property on the creeks surrounding the town. Many locals were back at work on the mines. Besides, Bartlett loved people.

"He knew just about everybody," according to Naske's book. "He had a tremendous memory; he might not remember a man's last name, but always knew his correct first name or nickname."

Bartlett was the kind of person who managed to turn personal relationships into partnerships, regardless of occupation or ideology. He was friends with everyone, from the town's Republican businessmen to the crusty miners working north of town, a characteristic that helped him both in politics and his days as a reporter.

Mary Nordale's family was close friends with the Bartletts. She grew up in Fairbanks during the 1930s and 40s. Her earliest memory was seeing him at her childhood home as a toddler. "It was very hard not to like Bob. I can't think of anybody who didn't like him. A lot of people didn't like his politics, but that's because he was a Democrat in a Republican town."

FAIRBANKS NEWSPAPER WARS

In the early days of Fairbanks, people clambered to read the news. There weren't many telephones and residents were spread throughout the Interior at mining claims and other sites. They needed a way to stay connected.

Newspapers flourished, even though the first one looked like more like a typed report handed in by a school child than the broadsheets of our imaginations. The Fairbanks Miner's premiere issue came out in May of 1903. Its eight pages included news that the bill providing for the election of a delegate from Alaska had failed to pass Congress. There was also a list of amendments to the Alaska Code, including a reduction in the number of years a person had to live in Alaska before seeking a divorce.

The newspaper's feature story celebrated the discovery of the Fairbanks placer mines just nine months before by Felix Pedro, "an Italian, forty-two years old."

"His adventures in the Ketchumatook Range (sic), his long summer tours afoot, his dangers from the bald-faced grizzly, the bull moose, and other animals, how he was eaten my moskitos (sic), and how he ate his dogs … these would fill a volume and equal the richest book of travels," gushed the reporter who "made a personal inspection of the mines" that had sprung up on Pedro's discovery.

"What the creeks need is systematic and careful prospecting," the reporter editorialized, pointing out that the rich ore deposits warranted further exploration. Early newspapers were often as much a public relations tool for a town yearning to grow as they were a means for informing citizens. The more miners and related personnel working the claims, the better it would be for everyone.

Other titles like the Fairbanks Gazette, the Northern Light and its rival the Fairbanks Semi-weekly News scrambled for readers and advertisers, but in the end, only one title survived.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner began in 1903 as the Weekly Fairbanks News. The paper would change hands, publishers and locations several times until 1950, when C.W. Snedden took over as owner and publisher. Under his direction, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner was instrumental in the statehood movement which took place in the late 1950s.
By then, Bartlett was leading the charge for statehood in the halls of Congress and working with the News-Miner from a different perspective. He was meeting with reporters, something Nordale said he relished. "In his day, they were mostly from newspapers and magazines, and he enjoyed very much the opportunity to tell the reporters what was going on."

There were no Alaska reporters based in the Capitol. Occasionally there might be a story on the Associated Press wires, but nobody was covering the Alaska beat. Bartlett helped fill in the gap by putting out a weekly newsletter called Bob Bartlett's Newsletter. In some ways he became the editor of his own paper.

"That was a real production, to put it out," Nordale said. "What it did was report to Alaskans what was going on in Washington. The bills and appropriations that were being passed."

Although it was written by his staff, Bartlett went over every item in the newsletter. "They were adamant about one thing," Nordale said. "There couldn't be any politics in it, only facts."

HOMETOWN BOY

By the time Bartlett and other Alaskan leaders helped push the statehood measure to a vote in Washington D.C., things were changing back home. The pro-development News-Miner had switched sides. The new publisher C.W. Snedden was a hardcore supporter of statehood, as was the rest of the town.

George Sundborg Jr. had come to Fairbanks in June of 1958 with his father, whom Snedden hired away from his Juneau-based newspaper enterprise to write pro-statehood editorials. The two families were already friends, thanks to Bartlett's days as the Secretary of Alaska, so the Delegate would call "Georgie" for a ride whenever he came to town.

"I would pick him up at the airport," Sundborg said. "I took him around town if he had to go somewhere. I took him back to the airport. He would always meet somebody on the plane, so there would be a carload."

And they always stopped by the newsroom where he'd spent his days as a reporter. When Mary Nordale worked for him as a research assistant and a staff attorney in Washington DC, she remembered him telling stories about his reporting days.

"He loved the job," she said. "He loved to know what was going on and he loved to write, so this put the two together."

It was difficult for most people to leave the state or go on vacation in those days. There wasn't much air traffic. Bartlett reported on practically every plane that went in and out of Weeks Field.

"He'd report on the passengers," Nordale said. "There was always a list of people who had come in and were staying at the hotels. The phone system wasn't great so you'd know who was and wasn't in town. With only a couple thousand people in town, you needed to know certain things."

Bartlett wrote about some of the most fascinating stories of the day for the Associated Press. He covered Carl Ben Eielson's record-setting flight from Barrow to Spitzbergen, Norway and later the international search for the same pilot and his mechanic after their plane went down over Siberia.

One of Nordale's favorite stories was the dedication of a federal office building in downtown Fairbanks. "(University of Alaska President and former District Court Judge) Charles Bunnell gave a rip snorting Democratic speech in the face of the Republican administration that had financed the building. Bob was excited about that. He liked the drama."

The Fairbanks Fifty Years series appears in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in celebration of the premiere of KUAC's new documentary Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to Washington January 29, 2009 at 9 p.m. on public television stations statewide.

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