Alaska has lost one of her great leaders. State Senator Jalmar M. “Jay” Kerttula died Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Juneau, a man whose dedication to Alaskans and the land has been unwavering.
Sen. Kerttula was the son of Elvi Marja Martin Kerttula, the daughter of a Finnish immigrant family, and Captain Oscar Alexander Kerttula, who heroically served America on the sea in the Atlantic in World War I and the Pacific in World War II.
Jalmar Kerttula, “Jay” to all, was a highly respected legislator, who helped create much of Alaska’s infrastructure and long-term vision that remain to this day. Although a powerful leader, Kerttula never forgot the importance of public service, nor his love of family and friends.
There is a small, carved wooden toy penguin (humorously labeled “Alaska”) in Kerttula’s home, the kind of old toy that “walks” if you set it in motion. It is the only remaining memento from the young boy’s long journey from Depression-ridden Northern Minnesota to a new life in the Matanuska Valley.
Kerttula’s keen sense of social injustice, his understanding of how it felt to be an immigrant, and his lifelong belief in the power of education were formed during his childhood as part of FDR’s New Deal project in Alaska. The families helped each other build farms and structured the town of Palmer. They also started the farming cooperative “Matanuska Maid.” Years later, Kerttula had his own dairy farm and said that managing the cooperative taught him the fundamentals of politics.
First elected to the House in 1961, two years after statehood, Kerttula served 34 years in the state legislature. He is the only legislator to be both Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate. He began his political career when Alaska had little funding, but a lot of hope. Kerttula, along with leaders like John Butrovich, Frank Ferguson, Don Harris, John Sackett, Bill Egan, Jimmy Huntington, Bill Boardman and others were able to put partisan politics aside and focus on issues. As close friend Sen. Clem Tillion said, for Jay Kerttula, “regardless of party, Alaska always came first.”
Kerttula knew how to argue on the House or Senate floor and walk off friends with political adversaries. Friends this week reminisced about the 1978 governor’s race when competitors Jay Hammond, a Republican, and Jay Kerttula, a Democrat, shared remedies for their bad backs that came from sitting too long in small planes. During long House sessions in the early days of the legislature a magnetic chess board was often seen being passed across the aisle between Minority Leader Kerttula and Majority Leader Ted Stevens. Kerttula and Stevens remained lifelong friends. According to one of Stevens’ staff members, the “Kerttula name was always magic in the Stevens’ office.”
While Kerttula mastered the legislative chess game, it was no game to him. He understood the importance of every bill, budget item, and vote. He often chaired or was a member of the Finance Committees and Legislative Budget and Audit. His math skills never left him – to his last days, he could do complex equations in his head.
The long-serving senator’s famous “Donut District” ranged from Denali National Park to Cordova and Valdez, Seward and South Anchorage. He directly impacted many areas of legislation and Alaskan life – including education and health care, Pioneer Homes, the Alaska Longevity Bonus, the Children’s’ Trust, the Alaska Marine Highway, purchase of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government, antitrust law, energy funding, fisheries management, and the WAMI program (which he and the Dean of Medicine of the University of Washington outlined on the back of an envelope).
Kerttula was instrumental in securing the appropriation for the first cadastral survey of the North Slope allowing the state to select the federal land under the Alaska Statehood Act. His work to make sure Alaska benefitted from its oil wealth was a true focus for him. It did not always make him popular with the oil industry, but as Senator Rick Halford said, “He was willing to risk everything to do the right thing. Difficult issues did not take away his resolve and he was not intimidated by them.”
The Alaska wilderness and farming taught Kerttula an abiding love and respect for animals and the land. He carried this to the legislature where he worked on environmental and conservation laws, wildlife protection (such as the Nelchina Caribou Herd), creating state parks and the Division of Agriculture as well as laws protecting food security and safety.
You can’t talk about Jay Kerttula without talking about his wife, Joyce. Engaged six weeks after they met, they were a true love story and powerful team. A high school literature teacher, Joyce had worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project as an assistant to Dr. Jack Clark, head of the testing program, and was on site during atomic tests. Joyce came to Palmer when she was denied a passport to teach in Germany after the war, being told by J. Edgar Hoover himself that she was a national security risk. An adventurer for life, Alaska was the furthest she could go from her home state of Oklahoma without a passport. Jay and Joyce met in Palmer and were rarely apart for the next 60 years. Joyce predeceased Jay in 2015.
Joyce and their two daughters moved to Juneau every year for the legislative session. She became an unpaid volunteer in the legislative office after finding a drawer full of unanswered letters. Her rule: “Nothing sits on the desk for more than 24 hours before it gets an answer.” Over the years their staffers became family members, and the Kerttula office was noted for its kindness and professionalism.
Their daughter Beth, who went on to serve in the state legislature, says she still hears stories about how Jay or Joyce helped others. One young woman came to see Beth with this story: Her family had driven the Alcan Highway, arriving in Palmer penniless. Someone told them to go see Jay Kerttula. She said the reason the family got through the first winter was because he gave them a 50-pound bag of potatoes and half a moose.
Kerttula never let politics change him. Remaining a farmer, one day he was Senate President and the next he was home on the farm, mucking out a cow stall. He was grounded and pragmatic – always thinking of how to build Alaska and make life better for all Alaskans.
“Jay once said that if he had not been a farmer, he would have been a Cordova fisherman,” said Cordova friend Sylvia Lange. “Jay was such an ‘everyman,’ and appreciated Alaskans as the people they were, not differentiating between cultural differences or social status. I always felt he represented us as hard-working Alaskans first.”
Helping others be successful was a Kerttula trait. Friend Bob LeResche recounted his early days as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for Gov. Jay Hammond. LeResche had just replaced the Director of Agriculture, a position Kerttula had legislatively created, when Hammond told him he might want to talk to Kerttula. LeResche said during the meeting “Jay was so kind to me. He said, ‘You don’t know what the hell you are doing yet, but you’ll learn, and I appreciate your talking with me.’” They went on to become close friends and allies.
In writing legislation, Kerttula always looked to the future. His daughter remembers asking him why he kept introducing a bill that would not pass. His answer: “It took 10 years to get the antitrust law. If you keep introducing it, someday it will pass.” And why did he want a Children’s’ Trust bill without an appropriation? “If the law is on the books, some day they will fund it,” he said.
Kerttula lost election to the state Senate in 1995. He became Director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture and went back to the farm. He and Joyce remained politically active, and Jay continued to farm, read, and watch his favorite Humphrey Bogart movies.
While he had great passion for Alaska, his real love was for others. Daughters Beth and Anna knew that love and support. Beth became an attorney, a state legislator, and served as National Ocean Council Director under President Obama. Anna became a Ph.D. anthropologist, and after working on Capitol Hill for 10 years she went back to science as the Program Director of the Arctic Social Science Program at the National Science Foundation. They credit their parents for their love of learning, their dedication to public service, and of course, their love of Alaska.
Jay Kerttula is survived by Beth Kerttula and her husband, Jim Powell, of Juneau, Alaska; Anna Kerttula de Echave and her husband John Echave, grandsons Mathew Echave, Chris Echave and his wife Emily Cohn Echave, great grandson Joey and great granddaughter Megan, all of Washington D.C. He is also survived by Joyce’s sister, Lois Pillifant, who has always been like a sister to him and who worked tirelessly on his behalf, as well as her children, Robert, Marilyn, Frankie, Laura and Tom Pillifant, their spouses and children.
Beth and Anna would like to thank Dr. Taylor Dunn and everyone at Valley Medical Care. They also want to thank Jay’s patient and kind caregivers, who became part of the family: Jenny Baube, Christian Del Rosario, Pep Scott, John Scott, Denise Wiltse, Dora Newport, Eliza Searcy, Delores Gonzalez, Sunshine Shadwick, Sandra Natal, Julia Gonzalez, Lizzy Smith, Briana Heller, Tyrus Briolette, and others.
A memorial will be planned when it is safe for family and friends to travel.