James Fisher, elected to Alaska’s first Legislature of 1959, dies of COVID-19

Jim Fisher on his 88th birthday, in 2015. (Michele Vasquez)

Alaska’s first steps into statehood were shaped by its inaugural legislative class, a group of senators and House representatives who set the young government on its course six decades ago. One of those first legislators, James Fisher, played an equally prominent role in shaping the Kenai Peninsula.

Fisher died of COVID-19 last month at his home at Heritage Place in Soldotna. He was 93.

Those who knew Fisher remember him for his deep-rooted political involvement and unflinching advocacy for local people and causes — and his love for his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.

“If my dad ran the world, everybody would have a place to sleep and food to eat,” said Sally Tachick, Fisher’s daughter.

Fisher was born in Ohio and grew up in Texas. He spent several years in Asia with the Army and Marines and came to Anchorage in 1955, following the spirit of adventure and the legacy of his great-grandfather, who had sought gold in the Klondike.

He became involved in “Operation Statehood” and was elected to the first Alaska Legislature in 1959, one of eight representatives from Anchorage. The Legislature was majority Democrat at the time.

Fisher was a loyal Democrat his entire life. Michele Vasquez remembered meeting him years later at a District 30 Democratic Party convening.

“And he said he was Jim Fisher, and he was the oldest living Roosevelt Democrat on the Kenai Peninsula,” she said. “I was like, enamored from that moment. I said, ‘I’ve got to get to know this guy.’”

Fisher married his wife, Helen, in 1960. Shortly after, he lost reelection to the State House and the family moved down to the Peninsula, where they raised Tachick and their son Bruce in Soldotna and then Kenai.

That’s where Fisher opened his law practice. He recruited Jim Hornaday to be his partner.

“Once he set a goal, he generally accomplished it,” Hornaday said. “I was clerking for the court up in Anchorage, and he literally dug me out of the courthouse and offered me a partnership in his firm down on the Kenai Peninsula.”

Hornaday didn’t know him then. The two ended up practicing together for over a decade.

“We basically made legal services available in areas where they hadn’t been available,” Hornaday said. “He was the first practitioner in Kenai, and then I think we opened the first office in Homer.”

Fisher and his wife also spent several years in Juneau. There, they adopted Cory Mann, then a teenager, who they helped guide through school.

The theme for Fisher was always service. He founded the Kenai Bar Society and was a representative to the USDA during the Carter Administration. He was deeply involved with local causes and was famously committed to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, where he was inducted into the first Hall of Fame.

Fisher always kept up to date with politics. Tachick said when she was going through his things, she found receipts from campaigns he had donated to out east. He supported candidates he believed in all over the country.

Vasquez said he especially wanted to support women who ran for office. He championed the League of Women Voters and worked hard to overturn SB21.

Hornaday, who identified as a moderate Republican, said they would have friendly debates from the other side of the aisle.

“Oh, yeah, we’d go round and round on the politics,” he said.

Fisher’s patronage extended into the realm of music. Once Helen died, he dove into the Peninsula’s live music scene, attending open mic nights and shows — often multiple times in one night.

Some of his favorites were Soldotna musicians Sue Biggs and Jack Will.

“Jim, being the lawyer that he was, in his pocket he had a little notepad and a pen,” said Biggs. “He’d pull it out and he’d write down songs that he liked. And then if we came back another Friday or Saturday, he would be there, having his soup — he always liked to have a bowl of soup — and he would pull out his little notepad and he’d say, ‘How about, ‘Put Out the Cat!’ Or something like that. And so he started having a list of songs that he liked of ours.”

He kept it up when he moved into Heritage Place, Central Peninsula Hospital’s long-term living facility. Even in his old age, he was determined to get to know the people around him.

“He’s quizzed all of his CNAs and nurses about, ‘How many kids do you have?’ and, ‘So, what is your daughter studying in college?’” Tachick said.

COVID-19 swept through Heritage Place in November. Fisher tested positive for the virus and died four days later, Nov. 21.

The facility was buttoned up to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Bruce says the last time they visited face-to-face was in September.

“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever had to do, is when we Zoomed, and he was in the emergency room, and you could tell he’s just gasping for air,” he said. “And his eyes were bugged out a little. And the doctor said, ‘Is there anything you want to say to your son?’ ‘Come get me, come get me.’ Ah, it just tore me up.”

Before Jim died, Biggs and Will played him some of his favorite songs over FaceTime.

Like always, he did his best to sing along.

“You could tell, his lips were kind of moving, even though he wasn’t really all there. I could hear him. I could tell he was singing along,” Biggs said. “We were singing all his favorite songs that he loved to sing along with us.”

They even changed the words to an old folk tune he liked for his 80th birthday. You can listen to that song in the audio version of this story.

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