Walter J. Hickel and Me

“If you boys told me beforehand you were coming by, I would’ve went along with the gag!”

Mr. Hickel at his desk in the Hotel Captain Cook.

I first met, Dawson and Yvonne Lindblom, late summer in 1997. An appraiser from Antiques Roadshow was in Anchorage, Alaska, and I was at the Z.J. Loussac Library waiting to have my 1760’s Brown Bess musket appraised. The couple was standing in line directly behind me.

The appraisal event was a huge success, with curious antique owners lined up outside the main door all the way down several flights of concrete stairs. From there a mass of people wound around the sidewalk as well. Because of a loud gasp from one querulous attendee regarding my rifle, a security person walked over to check things out.

Asking to see my weapon, the man laboriously tried to peer into the barrel to see if it was loaded. A sharply pointed bayonet was still attached. Dawson Lindblom’s loud chuckle immediately caught everyone’s attention, especially his wife’s.

“That’s a flintlock. Lead ball goes in from the other end. If it were loaded there’d be powder in the pan and the frizzen cocked!”

Evidently this was foreign language to the man; he quickly handed back my gun. Before sauntering away the fellow quietly reminded me,

“Please don’t point it at anyone!”

That would’ve been hard to do, as the Brown Bess stood over 7 feet tall from bottom of stock to tip of bayonet. I cautiously held it upright to avoid poking folks.

Dawson Lindblom and I began talking about things in general with Yvonne eventually joining in. I believe they had several items for the appraiser to look at. The Lindblom’s were extremely friendly people.

From the start I felt at ease chatting with them. It was like we’d known each other for ages. Dawson was a crackup. He would’ve been the life of any party. Eventually it came out that Yvonne was former Governor Walter Hickel’s personal secretary. That piqued my interest.

I told them a story about me as a teenager, deliberately turning into the Hickel’s circular Loussac Drive driveway one summer evening. This was directly after President Richard Nixon fired Mr. Hickel as Secretary of the Interior.

Rambling on, I mentioned my pal Jeff Thimsen and a couple of East High School classmates being in the car.  Jeff told Michelle Giroux and Cathy Cook that my grandparents lived at the exquisite Loussac Drive residence. Of course the girls were smart enough to know he was pulling their chain. It was all for fun.

Dawson and Yvonne thought the story was funny. They wanted to hear more.

I stopped the car as Mr. and Mrs. Hickel came out their front door. Walter Hickel walked up asking what we were doing there. I told him we must be at the wrong address. We’re looking for my grandparent’s place. Michelle and Cathy in the backseat were trying to contain their laughter.

The Hickel’s spacious house was close to Cook Inlet with a creek running nearby. It was my favorite residence of all in Anchorage next to Robert Atwood’s place.

We drove by Mr. Atwood’s after leaving the Hickel residence claiming Jeff’s grandparents owned that dwelling. I believe a gate or sign kept us from driving in.

Mr. Atwood was proprietor of the Anchorage Times newspaper. His mansion at 2000 Atwood Drive was more like a villa than a residence, especially with a lily white gazebo sitting amidst huge green lawn during summer months. I met Bob Atwood as a boy when I delivered newspapers for him.

Mrs. Lindblom shook her head I suppose in amazement that someone would go to such lengths for a giggle.  We were simply cruising around town that day. It was something kids did for harmless entertainment.

After mentioning to Yvonne that I owned a newspaper article featuring Mr. Hickel during his boxing years, and wanted to get it autographed, she gave me her work phone number. The very soft spoken lady said to call and she’d arrange such.

A couple of years went by and I still hadn’t made things happen. By that time I was working closely with Governor Hickel’s former head of security, Robert Cockrell. One day I told Bob Cockrell about my plan to have Governor Hickel sign the newspaper, including an old governor’s license plate I’d recently come across.

The license plate was totally unique. It came from one specific box of Alaska “Bear” plates sold at public auction. This was after the state stopped using the popular design. I’d been tipped off beforehand by a friend working at DMV, exactly what box contained the special ones. It had a small yellow X on the side.

Having the winning bid, I believed at the time the price was too high. The man bidding against me purchased all remaining inventory. Later on I read in the newspaper that the fellow used them to reroof a cabin. With original bear plates now worth upwards of $50.00 a pop, that’d be one expensive roof job.

Robert Cockrell set things up with Yvonne for me to meet the former governor.  I was to stop by his office in the Hotel Captain Cook on Monday afternoon. I made sure to wear nice clothing and clean shoes as I’d heard Hickel was an impeccable dresser. 

When I walked in the door Yvonne remembered me from our Loussac Library experience. We talked a few seconds before she introduced me to the Governor. He was sitting in his office in a black leather chair behind a nice oak desk.

The office was well organized. Everything was meticulously in place.  A plaque on front of his desk in large letters boldly proclaimed, ‘Walter J. Hickel’. Yvonne had informed the governor beforehand on why I’d come.

After shaking hands, we conversed for a short spell regarding stuff I now can’t remember. I made sure to tell him my wife was also from Kansas. Handing him the newspaper article with his photograph on front brought forth a smile.

“I remember this story!”, he mused. “You know I still work out every morning!”

Walter Hickel looked extremely fit for someone in his early 80’s. The former boxer’s handshake was stronger than most of the younger guys I knew. He wrote a brief message on my newspaper with brown marker:

To Michael Hankins

God bless you for all your work.

Walter J. Hickel

1-19-98

I then pulled out the license plate. It was still in the original tan envelope.

“You really need Governor Hammond’s signature on this. These bears were issued during his stay in office.”

Walter Hickel was sharp as a tack on remembering such minute detail. It didn’t matter to me if it wasn’t the right year plate. For a brief second it appeared he might not autograph it. I was relieved when he asked Yvonne for a different color marker.

Mrs. Lindblom brought over a black one which Governor Hickel methodically signed with, adding to it the dates of his governorship. Telling him I also owned a Lt. Governor’s license plate, he said I needed to get Jack Coghill’s ‘John Henry’ on that one.

“Jack was my LG back then. He’s a good man!”

Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out several political pins and some bumper stickers and handed them to me. Along with those items he presented me with an Alaska People Magazine with his photograph on the cover. He kindly autographed that as well.

I thanked him and was about to leave, when Hickel mentioned he had a question. Evidently Yvonne had told the governor about me cruising through his driveway nearly 20 years previous.

“So you took a liking to my place?”

With red face, I recalled the tale about how we tried to prank a couple of high school classmates. Mr. Hickel didn’t remember bumping into us in his driveway, or I’m sure he would’ve said something.  The stately man had a comical reply to my obviously strange story.

“If you boys told me beforehand you were coming by, I would’ve went along with the gag!”

Walking back to my vehicle I realized I had something in common with Walter J. Hickel. As wealthy and powerful as he was, the man had a unique sense of humor not unlike my own!

* I was fortunate to get former Lt. Governor Jack Coghill’s signature on the corresponding plate. A friend, Ted Cadman, arranged such. Ted knew Jack and his brother Bill Coghill quite well. The old license plates are special to me. The two men signing them even more so!

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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