Former Alaska first lady passes, remembered as “frank and friendly”

Alaska first lady Donna Walker, left, and her husband, Gov. Bill Walker, pose with former Alaska first lady Ermalee Hickel during a fundraiser at Hickel’s home in West Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of the Walker family)

Ermalee Hickel, the wife of former Governor Wally Hickel, died yesterday. Though her husband’s outsized personality may have overshadowed her at times those who knew her say she was a strong woman of faith and family.

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One of those remembering her today is Haines writer Heather Lende. She said she first met Mrs. Hickel at the Governor’s mansion many years ago. Lende showed up early for an event, and though they didn’t know each other, Ermalee answered the door.

“She invited me in! I was so surprised that the First Lady was opening the door and then she said, oh, come on in and she had me help her set up for the party,” Lende said. “We were putting out little dishes of nuts and little trays for the drinks and all that kind of stuff. She was so gracious, it was like going to your grandmother’s house.”

They got to know each other better when Lende started writing a column for the Anchorage Daily News and Ermalee would send her notes.

“Like, actual notes, like bread and butter, on her stationary notes after columns that she liked or knew someone in or had a comment on,” Lende said.

Lende said Ermalee was motherly but in a formal type of way.

“Ermalee always reminded me of what I thought the Queen Mother was like, she wore those hats and matching purse and handbag and she was disarming, in that on the one hand she was very formal and very well dressed and would have been slightly intimidating except that she was so frank and so friendly,” Lende said.

Lende said she thinks Ermalee helped her husband in his work because she had a spine of steel.

“She must have been a tremendous asset to the governor in terms of his career and I would guess that much of his success was due to Ermalee having his back,” Lende said.

Ermalee Hickel was 92 when she died yesterday in Anchorage. Governor Walker ordered all Alaska flags to be lowered to half-staff. The flags should return to full staff at sunrise on Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story credited the wrong party for the photo. The photo was provided by the Walker family, not the Office of the Governor.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori