ERMALEE (Strutz) HICKEL
ERMALEE (Strutz) HICKEL
Hickel, the youngest of six children, was born Ermalee Strutz in Anchorage, Alaska, on September 11, 1925, to Aline and Louis Strutz. Her family arrived as pioneers in Anchorage in 1917 and settled in a small cottage-style house located at 9th Avenue and P Street near Cook Inlet. The home still stands, as of May 2021. The family raised cows on a piece of nearby land now known as the Delaney Park Strip.
Hickel was the editor of her high school newspaper, as well as an usher at the Empress Theatre. She later found work at the Port of Anchorage’s seafood cannery before becoming a secretary at Fort Richardson during the early 1940s.
Ermalee Strutz met her future husband, Walter J. Hickel, in 1943 soon after the sudden death of his first wife, Janice in 1943, with whom Ermalee had been friends. Hickel, now a widower with a baby son, remembered his late wife had said, “that Ermalee is such a wonderful girl.” By coincidence, both worked at Fort Richardson, where she was a typist and secretary, and he was an aircraft inspector. They soon struck up at relationship and the couple married on Thanksgiving, November 22, 1945, in a Catholic wedding ceremony held at Holy Family Church, located on the site of the present-day Holy Family Old Cathedral. In addition to Hickel’s son, Ted, from his first marriage, the couple had five more sons. They eventually settled in Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood near Fish Creek.
The Hickels purchased and renovated a small house soon after their wedding. They later sold the home, which launched Wally Hickel’s entry into the real estate business. He utilized the profits from the sale of the home to purchase, flip, and sell three more homes in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood.
Ermalee Hickel became actively involved in Alaskan politics once her husband entered the political arena in the 1950s. Political observers have credited her with helping to launch her husband’s political career and the couple viewed their business and political ventures as a partnership. Wally Hickel suffered from dyslexia, so Ermalee recorded his dictations on her typewriter and helped him with his speeches. Throughout their public service careers, her calm demeanor was seen as a counterbalance to his more impulsive personality. The former governor later described his wife as “beautiful as a butterfly, but tough as a boot.”
In 1964, Ermalee and Wally Hickel began construction on their Hotel Captain Cook. She did the hotel’s interior design and remained active in staffing decisions through the 1980s. During the mid-1960s, she also co-founded a charity that later became Catholic Social Services.
Wally Hickel was elected the second Governor of Alaska in 1966, narrowly defeating incumbent Governor Bill Egan. The election of her husband made Hickel the second First Lady in the state’s short history. Hickel, who was raising six sons at the time, stuck largely to ceremonial roles during her first tenure as Alaska’s first lady from 1966 to 1969. She hosted dignitaries, including aviator Charles Lindbergh. She loved telling the story of how she ended up ironing Mr. Lindbergh’s pants shortly before his address to the Alaska Legislature. The Hickel’s left office in 1969 when Gov. Hickel was confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior. Nixon fired him less than a year later after the Secretary criticized his Vietnam War policy. She later hosted Nixon during his trip to Alaska in 1971, despite the firing, a measure of her graciousness and fine social sensibilities.
Hickel took a much more active role during her second tenure as First Lady from 1990 to 1994 by focusing on social issues. Her public causes and initiatives included preventative healthcare, substance abuse and suicide prevention, homelessness, addiction recovery and rehabilitation, as well as the issues affecting young people and the elderly in the state.
Hickel traveled extensively throughout Alaska as First Lady. She was known to eat lunch with inmates at juvenile detention facilities and Alaska Pioneer Homes, as well as soup kitchens in Juneau. She would then report problems or other issues to the governor or his staff in the governor’s office.
Notably, Hickel persuaded the governor to support the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend after traveling and hearing, firsthand, how many Alaskans relied on the program. Governor Hickel had initially opposed the dividend before his wife’s intervention.
First Lady Hickel lobbied to successfully enact new benefits for families to care for disabled children or adults living at home. She also worked to raise the public’s awareness of alcoholism and fetal alcoholism. A literacy advocate, Hickel always carried a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Are You My Mother?” when invited to read with elementary school students.
Hickel became an unofficial advocate for Alaska’s people. What’s more, she never, ever took credit for anything. The people and the press had no idea what she was up to. She was all about making sure the right things happened for the people or Alaska, and if necessary, she was going to get the system fixed.
In 1994, the first Circumpolar Expedition was held, with Governor Hickel scheduled to head the Alaska delegation, with his wife as part of that group. However, a special session of the Legislature was called on the day was Expedition was to begin. First Lady Hickel stepped up to represent Alaska and the governor on the trip, visiting 14 Arctic cities in all eight Arctic nations in seven days.
An ardent philanthropist, Hickel and her husband jointly established the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel Alaska Foundation as a fund within the Alaska Community Foundation. She also created the Hickel House at Providence Alaska Medical Center, which provides accommodations for outpatients and their families. Additionally, she was a member of the boards of directors or patron of numerous civic, cultural, and political organizations, including the Pioneers of Alaska, the Alaska SeaLife Center, the President’s Forum at Alaska Pacific University, the Anchorage Symphony League, the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher, the Alaska Republican Women’s Club, the Women’s Resource Center, the Salvation Army, and the Alaska Botanical Garden.
Hickel and five other former Alaskan First Ladies were the subjects of a 2005 KTOO-TV television documentary. In August 2008, then-Governor Sarah Palin honored Ermalee Hickel, as well as former First Ladies Neva Egan, Bella Hammond, Susan Knowles and Nancy Murkowski, at an official ceremony and luncheon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Alaskan statehood.
During the 2012 Alaska state elections, Ermalee Hickel re-entered active politics by endorsing a bipartisan slate of lawmakers running for re-election to the Alaska Senate. Hickel and former Alaska First Lady Bella Hammond partnered to re-establish Backbone Alaska, a political group which had originally been established in 1999 by former governors Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond to oppose perceived oil company concessions by then-Governor Tony Knowles’ administration during the merger of BP and ARCO. Bella Hammond’s and Ermalee Hickel’s newly resurrected Backbone Alaska also sought to counter the influence of the oil industry in Alaskan politics.
The former First Ladies supported the Alaska Senate’s Bipartisan Working Group, which had criticized oil tax reform and concessions to oil companies operating in Alaska between 2010 and 2012. In an October 2012 press release in support of bipartisan efforts in the Alaska Senate, Hickel and Hammond stated, “As our husbands were known for putting Alaska first, we, too, are dedicated to this guiding principle. Now, multi-national corporations are attacking those Alaska legislators running for re-election who stood together in the past session to protect Alaska’s interests.”
Hickel’s husband of 65 years, former Governor Wally Hickel, died on May 7, 2010, at the age of 90. Ermalee Hickel died at home in Anchorage on September 14, 2017, at the age of 92. She was survived by her six sons and their wives, as well as sixteen grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In a statement marking her death, Alaska Governor Bill Walker praised her contributions to the state, calling her “a giant of history.”
Hickel was buried beside her husband in Anchorage Memorial Park. Like her husband, the former first lady was buried standing up facing Washington, D.C. In 2010, Governor Wally Hickel had famously requested to be buried standing up facing in the direction of the U.S. capital. According to their son, Jack, the Hickel’s had requested the unusual burial arrangement, recalling “He [Governor Hickel] said if they don’t do it right, he’s going to crawl out of his grave and straighten them out…He thought they were going to screw everything up. He wanted to keep his eye on them.”
And apparently so did Ermalee Hickel.
1. Downing, Suzanne, “Ermalee Hickel, 1925-2017”. Must Read Alaska. 10-26-2017.
2. Wohlforth, Charles, “Ermalee Hickel led Alaska, too”. Alaska Dispatch News. 09-16-2017.
3. “Ermalee Hickel (1925 – 2017) obituary”, Alaska Dispatch News. 10-01-2017.
4. Petty, Andrew, “Alaska’s first ladies gather for documentary”. Juneau Empire. 12-03-2015.
5. Morrison, Eric, “Palin family honors former first ladies: Women look back on fond memories of life in Governor’s Mansion”. Juneau Empire. 12-17-2010.
6. Medred, Craig, “Former first ladies of Alaska line up behind Senate bipartisan gang”. Alaska Dispatch News. 11-11-2017.
7. “Ermalee Hickel”, Wikipedia entry, last updated January 3, 2021
8. “Ermalee Hickel”, Institute of the North biography