Maria Downey honored as “Alaskan of the Week”

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized Maria Downey, longtime Alaska news anchor, on the Senate floor Thursday (Jan. 25th, 2024) for her journalistic career of more than 40 years. Downey first joined Alaska’s news industry in 1981 and became a full-time news anchor at Channel 2 in 1985, delivering the nightly news to homes across the state. Downey is renowned throughout Alaska for her sincere and intrepid reporting, service to her community, and dedication to mentoring the next generation of Alaska journalists. Downey was recognized as part of Sen. Sullivan’s series, “Alaskan of the Week.”

Tribute to Maria Downey

Madam President, it is Thursday afternoon, and, as you know from presiding at this time frequently, it is my favorite time of the week because I get to come down to the Senate floor and talk about our Alaskan of the Week. This is somebody who is doing something great for our local communities, our State, maybe the country, maybe the world.

I have been doing this for several years now, and it really helps highlight what makes Alaska, in my view, the greatest State in the greatest country in the world.

I would like to talk about, at the beginning of this speech, a little about what is going on in Alaska. We have seen all the snowstorms across the country this week. Trust me, that is just another day in our State. I think by Christmas Eve this year in Anchorage, my hometown, we had close to 100 inches already of snow, so no worry about a white Christmas back home.

It is actually a really beautiful time of the year–great to get outdoors. I have done some skiing already. People are out snow machining. If you are watching on TV or in the Gallery, come up to Alaska any time of the year. In winter, you can see the northern lights. In summer, you will have a great time fishing, hunting–whatever you want to do. It is truly an incredible State. Year-round, we want people to visit–our great fellow Americans to come up. You will have a fantastic time.

Now, it is not always the easiest place to live. It is far from the lower 48 here. The weather can be extreme. It can be pretty harsh. As a result, the people in the communities bond a lot. They have to. They work together, particularly in some of our most remote communities.

Every community in Alaska–in America–needs to be able to share reliable, credible information. Local journalism across this great Nation of ours is vital–more vital, probably, in Alaska than any other State, I would say. It isn’t talked about nearly enough how vital that local journalism is. We all benefit all across the country from thousands of local reporters who are working on stories day in and day out. That is certainly the case in Alaska. I believe that we should be saluting these frontline journalists–local journalists–for doing this important work a lot more here.

What we are trying to do is do that today for one of the alltime best. Our local reporters in Alaska are so important. So what I would like to do today is introduce to the U.S. Senate and the American people a great Alaskan of the Week, Maria Downey–longtime Anchorage journalist, news anchor–who for more than 40 years has brought Alaska’s news directly to our homes and kept us informed about our State, our communities, our country–with professionalism, sincerity, kindness, and grace.

Let’s talk about Maria Downey–Alaskan of the Week, Maria Downey. She moved to Alaska from Florida with her husband Ron in 1981. In 1981, a lot was going on in Alaska. The Trans-Atlantic Pipeline–which, by the way, this body approved–was flowing. Our country needed energy. We just had the Arab oil embargo. So Alaska was booming. Almost 2 million barrels a day was flowing through taps, as we call it in Alaska. That is unbelievable. It is great for Alaska, great for America. We need energy.

Maria said about 1981:

It was a great time to be a reporter because it was the boom period. CNN or NBC, whatever the affiliates were at the time, would not hesitate to spend the money to send you places [during that time].

Now, for a little context. Journalism in Alaska looks a little bit different than other parts of the country. There are a lot of things in Alaska that look different from the lower 48. A reporter, for example, may have to take a charter plane hundreds of miles–several hundreds of miles–just to reach some of our State’s most rural communities. Of course, they are usually faced with weather challenges. They are getting into the nitty-gritty of small-town politics. You might encounter some hungry wildlife even.

But because of these challenges, some of the best reporters arise from Alaska. An example of some of the National Public Radio’s most famous reporters nationally who have gotten their start in our great State: Peter Kenyon, Elizabeth Arnold, and many others. And the Anchorage Daily News, which has won Pulitzer prizes, had the late, great Howard Weaver. These are big names in reporting.

But I am digressing because the biggest name, in my view, in journalism in Alaska is our Alaskan of the Week, Maria Downey–even bigger than some of the other names I just mentioned.

It is this kind of intrepid reporter that makes Alaska so special in terms of news broadcasts and makes our Alaskan of the Week so special.

Maria started, as I mentioned, her journalistic career in 1981 on Channel 13 before moving to Channel 2 in 1985. At Channel 2, Maria quickly climbed the reporter ranks, going from co-anchoring to a full anchor in just 6 weeks. That is a shooting star in terms of journalism. As an anchor, Maria realized how vital the role local news reporting played in reporting Statewide news:

When we go to a village in rural Alaska, there’s people meeting us at the airstrip [when we get off the plane]. So when you go there, and you feel that connection [with your fellow Alaskans throughout the whole State].

While the national media can get a lot of negative attention–some earned, maybe some not earned–local media, especially in Alaska, is often the crucial link to rural communities who need that reporting for information, who need that reporting throughout the State, who need that reporting to bring us all together, especially in a State as big as Alaska.

Maria said:

It’s our community [the whole State]. We’re invested in it. It would be a disservice to do anything that’s not honest and fair to our community.

What a great principle, by the way, for a journalist.

People see that we’re out and about [working with them] and this is our home.

If you need evidence for how invested Maria truly has been and was in her job–you won’t believe this story–in 1986, while on the air live on Channel 2, she went into labor. She stayed on the air the whole time. Yes, that is a true story. Her longtime coworker, news director John Tracy, said:

She was cool as a cucumber. You’d never know what was happening [that she was in labor]. I timed her contractions in between commercials.

It is amazing. Maria closed out her segment in labor by telling her husband on the air: “Ron, meet me at the hospital.”

There you go. If that is not dedication to Alaska journalism, I don’t know what is. So along with her own two children, Alaskans across the State have seen and viewed Maria as our “TV mom.” Again, that is the kind of personality that she brings to her job, the professionalism and the fact that people love her.

As the Facebook congratulatory posts have flowed in the past week when Maria announced her retirement after more than 40 years, one post in particular stood out, from a child from rural Alaska who every night would pray for all his family members and then say, “God bless Maria Downey.”

Children across Alaska associate Maria with the close of the day–the Channel 2 evening news theme signaling dinnertime every night in thousands and thousands of homes across our great State. Channel 2 is the biggest station. It reaches pretty much the whole State.

Madam President, as you are probably gathering here, Maria is about as close to a local celebrity as you can get, and her popularity is really, really well-earned. Her coworkers, some of whom have worked with Maria more than 20 years, never fail to describe her as kind, intrepid, and good-humored. Tracy Sinclare–by the way, another intrepid journalist and producer herself who I know well at Channel 2–remembers Maria bringing her meals when Tracy was fighting breast cancer. She will tell you–and this is a quote from Tracy:

Maria is absolutely the person you see on TV [the best].

News director John Tracy said:

She could have done many other things for more money. But she just loved what she did. She earned every accolade.

And the accolades are now pouring in.

Maria is eager to pass her reporting expertise on to the next generation of Alaska’s journalists–by the way, a true sign of a leader, developing the next generation to take over after you are completing your professional career.

So, of course, Maria is Channel 2’s internship coordinator, where she has mentored young journalists, many of whom now hold full-time positions in the newsroom and continue to work alongside their mentor, Maria Downey.

Outside of the newsroom, Maria has devoted herself to serving the community that she reports on. No surprise there. For more than 25 years, Maria has led Channel 2’s Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for MDA for Alaska.

She was part of the committee that started what we call in Alaska the Pick, Click, and Give. It is an initiative and a program that lets Alaskans easily donate to the charities of their choice when they are applying for their Permanent Fund Dividend. This is a great initiative, and Maria has been critical to that success.

For her journalistic career, Maria, as I mentioned, has been rightfully honored with awards throughout the years, throughout the decades, celebrating her exceptional reporting for Alaska. She is a Silver Circle inductee with the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, an honor recognizing individuals with 25 years or more in the industry for exceptional contributions to broadcast and media in the Pacific Northwest. She has also been recognized by Alaska’s ATHENA Society, by the YWCA’s Women of Achievement Awards, and was inducted into the Alaska Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

When asked how she wants to be remembered from her 40-plus years in journalism, Maria said working to make sure her community is a better place is what she focused on:

Looking at ways to help, donating time, talent, treasure. The old stewardship motto. Hopefully what we’ve done, and what I have done throughout the years, has helped push people towards doing what’s right for their community.

What a great legacy. She is not done. She is retiring, but, fortunately, Maria is going to stay in Anchorage. That is great news for all of us in Alaska. She is going to be spending more time with her husband and their two children. Even though we won’t be seeing her in our homes every night and letting us know what is happening in our community, in our State, in our country, we all hopefully will be seeing her around town. I am sure we will.

So on January 26, after 38 years of Channel 2, Maria will anchor the Channel 2 News for the last time. So all Alaskans make sure you tune in. Americans, you want to watch one of the greatest newscasters in the country–the whole country should tune in.

So, Maria, thank you for your exceptional service to Alaska, for being that woman behind the news all these many years. Thank you for keeping our communities connected, people informed about what is going on in Alaska, in America, in our communities, and congratulations on maybe one of the biggest awards you have ever received up until this moment, being our Alaskan of The Week.

Great job, Maria. Have a great retirement.

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