Some people just make it look so easy.
Their poise when things aren’t going as planned. Strength when it’s time to be firm. Compassion and understanding when it’s time to listen.
Arliss Sturgulewski was one of those people. The longtime Anchorage Assembly member, state senator, community stalwart — and my friend — died Thursday at the age of 94.
I first met Arliss when I began lobbying for public radio in Juneau as head of the Alaska Public Radio Network. I had no idea what I was doing. She was accessible, kind and wise. I learned so much watching her and listening to her. She loved public radio and her vocal support lasted long beyond her days in the Legislature, until the end of her days. I called her when I needed counsel. She was always available and I felt honored to know her. She stepped up immediately, with Ed Rasmuson and others, when we put a leadership group together to explore an endowment campaign.
Arliss told me how her father didn’t believe it was important for girls to go to college so she had to make it happen on her own. How she was treated by some members of the Legislature. About the tough things that happened when she ran for governor — in large part because she was a woman.
Arliss broke trail for women in politics and raised the bar for public service. She once said, “I believed in myself. I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew it was up to me. Nobody was going to make it easy. There wasn’t a case of retreating, or failing, or saying, ‘I’m sorry, that’s too hard.’ I just did it. I was always a goal setter, and I guess I still am in my advanced age.”
Some years ago, Rasmuson Foundation hosted its first women’s leadership retreat in a remote area of Alaska. Arliss was already inching toward her 90s but made the trip and was a trooper. She rode a four wheeler down the beach, enjoyed the fishing at the creek, and entertained us with stories into the evening. In true Arliss spirit, she decided one in our group was perfect to be the next mayor of Anchorage and tried to whip up support to start a campaign.
Just a few years ago, Arliss headed down to Juneau to lobby for one of her causes. I was sitting near her and offered to help her with her bag but she bluntly refused and did it herself. We returned to Anchorage on the same flight and she again rebuffed my effort to help her get her bag down, insisting she was perfectly capable to do it herself. As we walked into the parking garage, we said our goodbyes. I waited at the exit to make sure she was fine. No Arliss. I drove back around. At Arliss’s car, all I could see were her legs sticking out of the car door. I got out to see if I could help. Her credit card had slipped down between the seats, and she was trying to nudge it out. By this time, her irritation was palpable. Clearly, she didn’t need anyone’s help.
Arliss was among the first individuals featured in the documentary series “Magnetic North: The Alaskan Character” sponsored by Rasmuson Foundation in partnership with Alaska Humanities Forum. The films, written and directed by Marla Williams, tell stories of individuals who helped shape Alaska into the place it is today.
Arliss exemplified the Alaska character. We will miss her.
Watch the Magnetic North documentary: