Friends and colleagues remember Dennis Egan: ‘the best curmudgeon around’

Four people talking around an office table
Sen. Dennis Egan, center, chats with his legislative staffers Sorcha Hazelton, left, and Peter Naoroz, right, and former staffer Jesse Kiehl, far right, at the Juneau Moose Lodge on May 31, 2018. Egan was the featured speaker at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Alaska Sen. Jesse Kiehl does a pretty good impression of one of his old boss’s signature lines.

“Oh GOD, it’s YOU,” Kiehl snarled.

If Dennis Egan greeted you like that, Kiehl said that’s how you knew he liked you.

“If you ever walked in his office and he said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re here. Please sit down, we have things to discuss’ — panic, right?” Kiehl said. “He put people at ease with that gruff manner.”

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Kiehl worked for Egan when Egan was a Democratic state senator representing Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Gustavus from 2009 to 2018. Kiehl is also Egan’s immediate successor in the seat. He’s one of many friends, politicos and radio listeners mourning Egan this week, after his death on Tuesday at age 75.

In addition to being a state senator, Egan was also a Juneau mayor and radio host. He was well-known and well-liked for his fairness, gruff voice and mischievous personality. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a former House Speaker, called him “the best curmudgeon around.”

Dennis Egan was born and raised in Juneau when Alaska was a territory. His father, Bill Egan, led Alaska’s constitutional convention in the 1950s and in 1959, became the new state’s first governor.

Dennis Egan would have been 11 years old when the family moved into the Governor’s Mansion. He was a prolific mischief-maker and prankster.

A black-and-white photo of a couple and boy, formally dressed
A young Dennis Egan poses for a family portrait with his parents, Neva Egan and Bill Egan, circa 1959. Bill Egan was the state of Alaska’s first governor. (Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ralph J. Rivers Papers 1956-1966, UAF-1972-49-161)

“Sometimes, those pranks happened to be on the front doorstep of a sitting legislator,” Kiehl said. “And boy, his father made him make apologies quite formally.”

Egan shared several stories about his childhood in the Governor’s Mansion with Alaska’s News Source in 2017, including brewing beer in the basement and running a pirate radio station in the attic.

Radio turned out to be a big part of Egan’s life. In the 1960s, he went to radio operation engineering school and graduated from an Army communications school. He used his radio skills while serving in the Alaska Army National Guard from 1967 to 1974.

In the private sector, Egan worked for KINY in Juneau, eventually becoming part owner of the station and its general manager. His gravelly voice became particularly well-known in the region after hosting “Problem Corner” for decades. That’s the station’s long-running, live swap meet show.

“Yeah, he was great at it,” said Pete Carran, a retired news director for KINY. “There was just no replacing Dennis Egan on that program.”

In 1989, Egan was elected to the Juneau Assembly. He became mayor in 1995 when then-Mayor Byron Mallott resigned to lead the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.

“What was really amazing is when he served as mayor, and he still managed the radio station, he would be forthcoming, accessible and still make sure that the competition, like you guys (KTOO), the (Juneau) Empire, were treated equally, too,” Carran said. “I didn’t get exclusives because he was the mayor.”

In 2009, Egan was appointed to the state Senate, after the Obama administration hired away Juneau’s sitting senator, Kim Elton.

In one of Egan’s last public speaking engagements as an elected official in 2018, he described his philosophy for getting things done in the often deadlocked Alaska Legislature.

“We have to be nice to everyone, we have to work with everyone, whether you are an R or a D … you know, you have to get along, or you don’t get anything accomplished. Perfect example is $140 million for SLAM,” he said.

That’s the state libraries, archives and museum building in Juneau that was completed in 2016. Egan had worked for years to secure state funding for the facility.

“You have to get along with people. That’s the only way you have at least some opportunity of getting things accomplished,” Egan said.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, addresses the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at the Juneau Moose Lodge on May 31, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

At the time, the Democrat had announced his retirement from the Senate and joked that he could get away with saying whatever he wanted to his conservative-leaning crowd.

“What can you do to me? Fire me?” he asked, before talking about his support of a statewide income tax and reducing permanent fund dividends to support state government.

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.