Former Alaska first lady passes, remembered as “frank and friendly”

Alaska first lady Donna Walker, left, and her husband, Gov. Bill Walker, pose with former Alaska first lady Ermalee Hickel during a fundraiser at Hickel’s home in West Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of the Walker family)

Ermalee Hickel, the wife of former Governor Wally Hickel, died yesterday. Though her husband’s outsized personality may have overshadowed her at times those who knew her say she was a strong woman of faith and family.

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One of those remembering her today is Haines writer Heather Lende. She said she first met Mrs. Hickel at the Governor’s mansion many years ago. Lende showed up early for an event, and though they didn’t know each other, Ermalee answered the door.

“She invited me in! I was so surprised that the First Lady was opening the door and then she said, oh, come on in and she had me help her set up for the party,” Lende said. “We were putting out little dishes of nuts and little trays for the drinks and all that kind of stuff. She was so gracious, it was like going to your grandmother’s house.”

They got to know each other better when Lende started writing a column for the Anchorage Daily News and Ermalee would send her notes.

“Like, actual notes, like bread and butter, on her stationary notes after columns that she liked or knew someone in or had a comment on,” Lende said.

Lende said Ermalee was motherly but in a formal type of way.

“Ermalee always reminded me of what I thought the Queen Mother was like, she wore those hats and matching purse and handbag and she was disarming, in that on the one hand she was very formal and very well dressed and would have been slightly intimidating except that she was so frank and so friendly,” Lende said.

Lende said she thinks Ermalee helped her husband in his work because she had a spine of steel.

“She must have been a tremendous asset to the governor in terms of his career and I would guess that much of his success was due to Ermalee having his back,” Lende said.

Ermalee Hickel was 92 when she died yesterday in Anchorage. Governor Walker ordered all Alaska flags to be lowered to half-staff. The flags should return to full staff at sunrise on Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story credited the wrong party for the photo. The photo was provided by the Walker family, not the Office of the Governor.

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Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-350-2058.