My first meeting with Byron Mallott was when he was CEO of Sealaska Corp. and I was heading up Alaska Public Radio Network. The subject was the “Sealaska Profiles” project and I don’t remember how it came about. We were going to produce mini-documentaries about leaders in the Southeast Native community. Upon looking at the list, and thinking about the politics, Byron decided our profiles would instead be about departed leaders, not those still alive. Too many people would be hurt not to be included. Funny to think of it now.
I guess that project went OK because Byron went on to join the board of APRN. While he served in so many big roles — mayor, Permanent Fund executive director, Alaska Federation of Natives president, state commissioner, First Alaskans Institute president, Alaska Airlines board member, lieutenant governor, Native corporation president — it seemed to me he valued family and friendship above it all. Over the years, I can’t remember how many times Byron provided advice, stood up for me, showed up for me, hosted me, fished with me … I can’t remember that he ever said ‘no.’ And sometimes on New Year’s Day would come a phone call expressing appreciation for the friendship.
Over the years, Byron and his wife, Toni, hosted Rasmuson board members and staff, and our guests, at their beautiful home in Yakutat. That’s not only his hometown but also was the home of Jenny Rasmuson and her son Elmer, who co-founded Rasmuson Foundation. For several years, while Byron was lieutenant governor, we started our Grantmakers Tour of Alaska at that home. Arriving for a week-long whirlwind tour of the state, national foundation executives were greeted by a warm Alaska household that included one of the state’s top elected leaders. They were made to feel special and got an overview of what to expect, what to think about, what to learn during the visit.
So many times, Rasmuson Foundation, in its efforts to carry out its work of improving life for all Alaskans, would seek to partner with the State of Alaska on an issue. Byron was always an enthusiastic collaborator and would run interference if there was a snag.
A special treat was getting to know Byron’s alter-ego, Nainoa Thompson, leader of the Hawaiian voyaging movement. The first time I hard Nainoa speak, I felt like I was in the presence of Byron’s twin brother. In later years, the three of us traveled to Silver Salmon Camp on the western side of Cook Inlet for a few hours, late in the season, hoping to show Nainoa a grizzly, maybe catch a fish. Two cubs were rolling around on the ground together soon after our arrival. Check! And Nainoa didn’t catch a silver but Byron did. Incredible few hours. Blessed.
Anthony Mallott, Byron’s son, joined the Rasmuson Foundation board of directors in 2011. Anthony had been out of state for years working in San Francisco before returning to head Sealaska Corp. He joined me for a day of meetings with legislators. In each office, the legislator would eventually come around to, “are you Byron’s son?” When they learned he was, they would inevitably smile and share a story about Byron. I remember, at the end of the day, saying to Anthony, “Your dad has given you an amazing gift. People who meet you for the first time instantly think highly of you because you are your father’s son.”
One of the great kindnesses was Byron’s arranging for a totem pole honoring the Rasmuson family and Foundation to be designed, carved and raised in Yakutat. Fred Bemis was selected to carve it. A log was secured, and the work began. On a beautiful sunny day in June of 2015, with the governor and lieutenant governor of Alaska leading the way, representatives of the Yakutat community, Rasmuson Foundation and family transported the 12-foot-tall pole 1.5 miles to its permanent spot. We raised it in a glorious celebration.