Medford man was last territorial Alaska governor

Mike Stepovich, 94, died Friday in San Diego
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Former Alaska territorial governor Mike Stepovich appears at an event to sign copies of the print Legacy of Alaska as a fundraiser for the Anchorage Statehood Celebration Friday afternoon May 9, 2008 at the Anchorage Museum.Anchorage Daily News

Michael Anthony "Mike" Stepovich, a Medford resident and the last surviving territorial governor of Alaska, died in San Diego Friday. Stepovich suffered a head injury in a fall Feb. 8 while visiting his son Jim. He was 94.

Stepovich and his family moved to Medford in 1978, but he continued to practice law in Alaska, said daughter Andrea Stepovich of Fairbanks.

President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Stepovich territorial governor in 1957. He resigned in 1958 to run for the U.S. Senate after Eisenhower signed legislation to make Alaska a state. He lost the Senate race by a narrow margin.

Stepovich was a founding board member of Medford's Magdalene House for pregnant teens and homeless mothers and a supporter of St. Mary's School.

"He was a very generous supporter of Sacred Heart Parish and a very generous supporter of Magdalene House," said the Rev. Liam Cary, bishop of Baker Diocese, who was the priest at Sacred Heart from 1999 to 2011.

"I considered him a friend, and I often visited him, and he was very gracious," said Cary. "He was just delightful company."

Stepovich was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, on March 12, 1919, but grew up in Portland. He graduated from Gonzaga University in 1940 and from Notre Dame Law School in 1943. He then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving until 1947.

Stepovich moved to Fairbanks in 1947 after marrying Matilda Baricevic. The couple had seven sons and six daughters. Stepovich founded a private law practice and, beginning in 1950, served one term in the territorial Legislature and two in the Senate as a Republican.

Much of Stepovich's gubernatorial term was spent lobbying for Alaska statehood in the 48 states. He appeared on the "What's My Line" television game show and was on the cover of TIME magazine.

In 1960, Stepovich opposed a measure to move Alaska's capital from Juneau to Anchorage. He lost the race for governor in 1962.

Stepovich played regularly in golf tournaments at the Rogue Valley Country Club, where he was a member, Andrea Stepovich recalled. She said her father was attracted to the area after traveling through while playing baseball.

"He loved Medford," said Stepovich. "He loved the weather."

The family bought a home in Medford in 1977 and Andrea, three of her sisters and a brother graduated from St. Mary's.

"He was a big supporter of St. Mary's," said Andrea Stepovich. "He was a big believer in Catholic education."

Stepovich never practiced law in Oregon, remaining a member of the Alaska Bar Association and returning frequently to law offices his firm had in Fairbanks and Anchorage. He retained residences in Alaska.

Stepovich spent the majority of his retirement in Medford, where he actively supported food pantries, though he traveled often to Alaska, said Andrea Stepovich. He was in Medford from May 2013 until Thanksgiving and was getting ready to return from San Diego, she said.

Six sons and two daughters still reside in Alaska. Two daughters live in Virginia and one in Spokane. His wife, Matilda, preceded him in death in 2003.

All 13 children were with Stepovich when he died, said Richard Headland, a Portland funeral director and family friend. Arrangements are by Chapel of the Chimes in Fairbanks, Headland said.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at Erik Hill of the Anchorage Daily News took the photo that appears with this story.

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