Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield dies at 94

Gov Bill Sheffield undated
Bill Sheffield was the governor of Alaska from 1982 to 1986. (Courtesy of Alaska State Library, Alaska Office of the Governor Photograph Collection, ASL-P213-5-10)

Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield died Friday morning at his home in Anchorage. He was 94. 

As his health began to fail, friends prepared this obituary for him, outlining his struggle with a stutter through young adulthood, becoming a hotel entrepreneur, his political life and his dedication to Alaska. 

“The most important thing to know about Bill Sheffield is that he loved Alaska,” said John Pugh, one of the friends who came to Anchorage to spend time with Sheffield in his final weeks. 

Pugh led the state’s Department of Health and Social Services under Sheffield and maintained a close friendship with him long after he lost his reelection in 1986

“His whole life was spent trying to make Alaska a better place for all Alaskans,” said Pugh. “And to his dying day, that was his message to each of us who were friends and his message to anybody who would listen to him: ‘Let’s work together to make Alaska a great place to live, and continue to make improvements to Alaska for all Alaskans.’”

Sheffield was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1928. He grew up during the Great Depression on a small family farm. 

a black and white photo of a man hitting himself in the head
Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield smacks himself on the head in Anchorage when results of the Aug. 27, 1986 primary election began coming in. (Herb Swanson/AP)

After high school, he joined the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. He once told the Anchorage Daily News that his stutter was so severe even then that he’d struggle to say his name out loud when reporting to collect his pay. He told the newspaper he wouldn’t get paid sometimes because he was afraid to show up. 

He moved to Alaska in 1953, when the state was still a territory, to sell and service home appliances for Sears Roebuck. He became active in a local chamber of commerce group, where he said he overcame his stutter. 

Before becoming governor, Sheffield founded a business that eventually owned 19 hotels across Alaska and in Whitehorse, Yukon. He sold the business to Holland America in 1987. 

Sheffield, a lifelong Democrat, was governor from 1982-86. His friends credit his administration with other accomplishments, including completing the state’s takeover of the Alaska Railroad from the federal government, shepherding state financing for a road and port system for the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, appointing more women to the judiciary than any previous governor, and implementing a pay system for public employees that contributed to pay equity for women.

In a 2019 interview after releasing a memoir, he was asked what he thought his greatest accomplishment as governor was. 

“The first thing I did was change the time zones in Alaska,” he answered. “People liked that.” 

Most of Alaska used to be split across three time zones, instead of one. 

Sheffield lost his reelection bid after he slashed state budgets to deal with a crash in oil prices, and after a corruption probe where a criminal indictment and political impeachment were considered, but never materialized.

His time in office was marred by many allegations of conflicts of interest with his business and political donors, and other ethical issues, such as fundraising after his election to recoup a large personal loan he made to his campaign. 

Sheffield lost his Democratic primary for reelection in 1986 to Steve Cowper, who went on to become Alaska’s next governor. 

Sheffield is survived by his long-time partner Cheri McGuire and many friends. His wife Lee Sheffield died in 1978. His step-daughter Deborah and brother Harold preceded him in death. 

Memorial services will be announced at a later time. 

a man standing at the port
Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield, who later became director of the Port of Anchorage, stands on the bridge over Ship Creek in Anchorage on Jan. 15, 2005. (Al Grillo/AP)
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Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.