A native of Valdez, Alaska, William (Billy/Bill) Allen Egan was one of six children born to William and Cora Egan. Prior to moving to Alaska, Papa Egan had worked in the copper mines of Montana. Moving to Juneau to mine for gold, Papa Egan settled his family in Valdez in 1903. Billy arrived on October 8, 1914.
In 1920, William died in an avalanche. At the time of his death, he was shoveling out a tramline with three other miners on Shoup Glacier. The four men were buried by the avalanche. When rescuers arrived, they were able to dig out the other three miners safely; but by the time they reached William, he was already dead, leaving a widow and seven children behind.
Following her husband’s death, Cora rented rooms and took in laundry, along with various other jobs to earn an income for her family. In an effort to help support his struggling family, Billy took a job in a local cannery at the age of 10. Thankfully Alaska had no age restrictions for a driver’s license at the time, so Billy was able to learn to drive at an early age and as a result, was able to earn additional money shuttling tourists during the summer. When he turned 14, he obtained a job with the Alaska Road Commission driving dump trucks.
The salutatorian of the Class of 1932 at Valdez High School, Bill attended Alaska Methodist University and received an honorary LL.D. in 1965; then completed his education at the University of Alaska in 1972. During World War II, he enlisted in the US Army.
Before Alaska was a state, the Territory constantly found itself at the mercy of the federal government’s various machinations. This resulted in Alaska adopting the “Tennessee Plan”. First enacted by Tennessee prior to becoming a state, the plan allowed a delegate to be elected to Congress, but the post carried no voting privileges. He could, however, address the members and lobby for statehood. Valdez attorney Anthony Dimond won this position in 1932. Dimond was Egan’s godfather. A Democrat who served two terms as mayor of the town and also became a member of the Alaska Senate; Dimond helped to launch Egan’s political career by serving as his mentor and sending copies of the Congressional Record for Bill to read.
Prior to World War II, Alaska endured geographical isolation. Following the war, change was in the air as the construction of the Alaska Highway began to link the territory with Canada and the Lower 48. An increased military presence could also be seen due to the Cold War with neighbor Russia.
Carrying within him an encyclopedic level of knowledge regarding Alaska’s century-old political history, Bill utilized the campaign strategy Dimond taught him and won a seat in the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives. He served there until 1945. Egan was elected Mayor of Valdez in 1946 and later to the Alaska Territorial Congress. He would go on to win three more terms, becoming speaker in 1951 and serving until 1953. Egan left the House and went to the Territorial Senate from 1953 to 1955.
During his time in office, Bill remained on the statehood bandwagon for Alaska because he felt the Territory was being held hostage by the major industries such as canning and mining. This was small potatoes, however, compared to the greater threat Alaska faced during World War II when Japanese invaded and occupied two of the Territory’s Aleutian Islands. Statehood now had to take a backseat to the situation at hand.
A constitutional convention began in 1955 in an effort to seek Congressional approval for statehood. Meeting on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks during November, Egan was chosen to lead the convention in drafting the new document. When the convention ended a year later, Alaskans received their new constitution as part of a 1958 referendum, which was easily passed. The statehood issue now went to the US Congress where it was passed by one vote. The Alaska Statehood Act was then signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the wee morning hours of January 3, 1959, fire whistles blew and church bells rang to announce the fact the United States had her 49th state and her flag’s union would include a new star.
Egan now made the decision to run for the position of Alaska’s first governor. His campaign slogan read, “Born in Alaska, raised in Alaska and schooled in Alaska.” He won the election and took office when Alaska’s admission to the Union became official. As he began his administration, Egan oversaw the state’s transition from territory to state. He also endeavored to encourage investment dollars in Alaska.
On Good Friday 1964, one of the strongest earthquakes in modern times struck Alaska. Governor Egan quickly grabbed the reins of supervision as he directed the state’s response.
A man who suffered from glossophobia (fear of public speaking), Egan met the challenge head-on with a determination to finish what he started. Egan also had an innate ability to never forget a name. A prime example of that involved his meeting with a cub reporter for the Ketchikan Daily News who was seated in close proximity to the governor at a ballgame. Seven years later, Egan and the reporter crossed paths again, at which time he walked up to her and asked, “Hello, June. Are you happy to be living back in Fairbanks again?”
Egan left office in 1966, then returned in 1970 to serve a second term until 1974. Prior to his second term, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. In 1973, an oil crisis resulted during the Yom Kippur War and played a major role in Egan’s second term. In the latter part of that same year, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act to help reduce America’s dependence on OPEC oil. In Alaska, however, environmental politicians were not happy campers about the legislation. In 1974, Governor Egan retired from political and public life.
William Egan was 69 when he died from lung cancer due to smoking on May 6, 1984. The following year, Alaska’s State Legislature named October 8th as William A. Egan Day. Each year Alaskans now honor the state’s first governor, who to date remains the only governor to be a native of Alaska.