I was president of Alaska Public Radio Network in 1983 when I met Governor Bill. He hosted a reception for my group at the Governor’s Mansion (he described it as “my home, your house”) on St. Patrick’s Day. All of the hors d’oeuvres were green. Shortly thereafter, the price of oil dropped to $9 a barrel. He cut our budget by millions — leaving intact funding for stations in Barrow, Kotzebue, Bethel and Dillingham. (He always had a heart for the Bush.) We fought back like crazy and lit up the phones in the Capitol. The governor relented and gave back a bunch of the money. I later overheard him tell a new Gov. Tony Knowles, “Here’s some advice. He nodded over at me. “Don’t cut her budget. Not worth the grief she’ll cause you.” Later, when we became friends, we would laugh about all that.

Governor Bill often said that the two people who can’t die before him were Jay Walker and Laurie Herman. “Jay builds my houses and Laurie does everything else.” He collected dear friends who cared deeply for him — many close friends of the Rasmuson Foundation. Pat Beattie, Paul Quesnel, the Pughs, Cheri and his dearest Christina.

Diane Kaplan with her late husband, Mel Sather, and Gov. Bill Sheffield.

The Governor Bill I came to know (his closest friends called him Governor or Guv) was kind and generous. One of the most generous people in Alaska. His proudest achievement was the Red Dog Mine. He elevated many now well-known Alaskans by appointing them to important positions. He had an unending love for Alaska’s Native people. His house was a gathering place for the powerful and the powerless. He was good to his friends. May his memory be a blessing.


He is one of those featured in our Magnetic North series about Alaskans whose actions and ideas shaped our state’s spirit, history and values:


Here is a poem written in 2008 to honor him on his birthday:

To Bill on His 80th

By Diane Kaplan

Bill Jennings Sheffield, our birthday man

All of this started — down in Spokane

June twenty-sixth, in the year twenty-eight

The birth of the guy — who would govern our state

A child of the Depression, cherished son of his mother

And deeply devoted to his father and brother

In the Army Air Corps — in the year forty-six

That is where Bill got his military fix

And then I must tell you, Bill, in fifty-three

Was something you did that was sure news to me

You sharpened your skills, for several years

Being the best-ever salesman for Sears

Some people met you, like my husband Mel

When you were the owner of a big hotel

You were going places, it was plain

When you built the Sheffield hotel chain

And then it was in eighty-two

That you pulled off a phenomenal coup

Alaska was your life now, you really were lovin’ her

You wanted to serve as the state’s next governor

You beat Tom Fink, it was your fate

To be chief executive of our state

Your days in office, when you were the Guv

Were days I thought that I would love

But the very first month that you were the chief

I discovered that you must have had a beef

‘Cause even though we were friends of Ted’s

You cut the public radio budget into shreds

The mansion has never been the same

Since you hosted the Senate poker game

Bill, you were never run of the mill

Not unit one, not our Bill

One time on St. Patrick’s Day, was quite a scene

You hosted a reception and the hors d’oeuvres were all green

You collapsed our time zones from four to two

Not every Alaskan was happy with you

Though you didn’t have to, it brought us more gains

Thank G-O-D that you have an affection for trains

The Alaska Railroad, I say with assurity

You brought it to life from its total obscurity

Here is the truth, I’m just giving the facts

No one has ever done more with our tracks

The days for the railroad were never so sunny

You were a virtual magnet for money

And just to prove it, to give you your due

Sheffield — a depot was named after you

And ‘cause you are really a do-gooder sort

You’re bringing the same thing to Anchorage’s port

Bill, there is something that’s most impressed me

Your generous gift to Providence, in honor of Lee

An incredible philanthropist with the gifts that you make

Like building a trail around Juneau’s Auke Lake

One of the best things each November brings

Is Thanksgiving for Alaskans with Bill in Palm Springs

And let’s have a toast—to someone we all admire

Your cherished friend, Bill, to Cheri McGuire

Bill, there’s a belief — that all of us hold

You look quite hunky at eighty years old

You are a mentor, a leader, a friend

Your gifts to Alaska go on without end

You’ve made Alaska the place you call home

You love it from Juneau to Anchorage to Nome

So, Bill, happy birthday, you’re a man without peers

All of us here wish you eighty more years