Friends mourn Jack Roderick, who helped build Anchorage government

A photo of Jack Roderick.
Former Greater Anchorage Area Borough mayor Jack Roderick, photographed at the Captain Cook hotel in 2014. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Jack Roderick, one of the founding fathers of Anchorage’s government and infrastructure, died this week. He was 94.

He packed what seems like three different lives into those years: military service, college football, truck driving, a law practice, the Peace Corps in India, publishing an oil industry newsletter and serving as mayor of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough.

He also had a huge network of friends, many of whom paid their respects in his final days, said Libby Roderick, one of Jack’s two daughters.

“People heard he was going, and we began to get phone call after phone call after phone call after phone call after email: ‘Could I please say goodbye? Could I swing by and just see him? Would you please pass along the message that I loved him?’” Libby Roderick said. “We just would let them sit there and say what they had to say. And one by one in their little masks, people would come and share stories.”

Those stories reflected Roderick’s long history in Anchorage and his affinity for other people.

Born in Seattle, Roderick originally came to Alaska to work the slime line at a fish cannery on Afognak Island, near Kodiak, to pay off debts he owed Yale University for his degree.

Roderick later got into the oil business and also practiced law in a partnership with Ted Stevens, Stevens and Roderick. And he was elected mayor in 1972 after a race involving a dozen candidates.

“Jack came to Alaska when it was a place where you could do whatever you want,” said Vic Fischer, 96, one of Roderick’s closest friends and the last living delegate to Alaska’s constitutional convention.

Roderick was married to Martha, who died in 2008; he’s survived by their two daughters and granddaughters. He was sober for decades and participated in Alcoholics Anonymous, after being raised by a single mother who divorced Roderick’s father because of a drinking problem he developed following his service in World War I, Libby Roderick said.

“If I could do it, there are only two things I would stop,” Jack Roderick said at a 2016 discussion with the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “One is war, and the other is alcohol.”

It’s hard to summarize Roderick’s life and careers. But among his proudest achievements were his work developing Anchorage’s trails, the city bus system and the system of community councils that are the nexus for local politics. Roderick said at the 2016 discussion that the idea for the councils came from the mayor of Portland, Oregon.

Jack Roderick rides a bicycle
Jack Roderick rides a bicycle in a photo taken for his successful 1972 campaign for mayor of the Anchorage borough. (John R. “Jack” Roderick papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage)

“I studied political science in college, and I believe that democracy works if people participate,” Roderick said. “And what better way to do that than have them be concerned with things right immediately around them?”

Roderick was part of the group of Alaskans who helped create the state’s government and political institutions after statehood. As the state reckons with its legacy of colonization, that history has become more complicated, but Roderick’s daughter said that her father deeply honored Alaska Native people.

“He played this part in this creation of the state,” Libby Roderick said. “And he recognized the central role of Alaska Native leaders and cultures.”

In recent years, Roderick kept up his regular weekend coffee get-togethers with friends at the New Sagaya market downtown. As the end neared, his friends helped make sure he was able to fill out his absentee ballot for the upcoming election.

Roderick had failing kidneys, but he was also just worn out after a long life, his daughter said.

He spent his final hours in a hospital bed at his home in South Addition, surrounded by loved ones in what they described as the best possible way for someone to pass away.

“Jack had decided that he was ready to die. So, for days, his mind was on leaving this earth,” said Fischer, his longtime friend. “It was a peaceful and beautiful departure.”

Details haven’t been settled yet, but the family plans to hold a memorial service. In Anchorage, Libby Roderick said.