Sheffield’s success: Overcoming hardship, personal loss
Former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield and his late wife Lee are seen in this photo taken in the 1970s. Sheffield postponed his 1978 run for governor when Lee was diagnosed with cancer. Sheffield stayed at her side as she battled cancer for a year before passing away in 1978. Sheffield won the governor’s office in 1982.
Bill Sheffield’s conservative streak on spending, and his business acumen, were honed in a tough depression-era upbringing.
Sheffield was born in 1928 in Spokane, Wash. The family was comfortably middle-class with his father’s insurance business, but then times got tough.
When the depression set in, “No one bought insurance,” Sheffield recalls.
To survive the family grew vegetables from its rented five-acre farm and sold them at a roadside stand. Sheffield was very young but he remembers Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as president and later Roosevelt’s famous radio talks, which inspired hope amid the nation’s economic despair.
“I sat on the floor listening, and I’ll never forget his words,” Sheffield said. “‘My friends,’ he would start, and you would feel he was talking directly to you.”
Roosevelt’s New Deal programs created jobs and Sheffield’s father eventually got one, giving the family a better income. Seeing Roosevelt’s policies work at close hand was an inspiration, and it molded Sheffield’s philosophy at a young age. It made him a lifelong Democrat, a Roosevelt-type, pro-job Democrat.
“There were wise people around Roosevelt and they could get things done. It was all about creating jobs that people could make a good, honest living with, and raise their families,” Sheffield remembers. “That was what government was for, to help people.”
This belief has remained with him since.
World War II ended the depression and after an Air Force stint and electronics school training, Sheffield joined Sears Roebuck. Sears was expanding in post-war Alaska.
The story is well-known that Sheffield came to Alaska to start TV sales and service for Sears. He arrived in Seward in 1953 on the Alaska Steamship Co.’s SS Aleutian. The train to Anchorage took eight hours, he remembers.
With Sears, Sheffield’s responsibilities grew. When the company expanded its retail line into appliances and home building materials, Sheffield moved into sales. For four years he was Sears’ top salesman in the nation.
It was in these years that Sheffield also overcame a problem that had plagued him since childhood, a difficult stutter.
“As I child I would go into a store and couldn’t speak. I had to point to pictures,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until his early 50s that Sheffield overcame his stutter.
Sheffield was ambitious. He became active in the Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce, and got to know other young up-and-comers like George Sullivan and Tom Fink, two future mayors.
He became a friend with Brad Phillips, who was then a Republican state senator. The two became roommates, in fact, and then business partners.
This was the start of Sheffield’s hotel chain.
Sheffield and Phillips first leased the 13-room Anchorage Inn at 9th and D Streets, and then leased the 31-room Red Ram, near 5th Avenue and Gambell Street.
This was small business, close and personal. Sheffield remembers running the night desk himself at the Red Ram and even changing and cleaning rooms in the middle of the night when airline crews came in late.
Sheffield eventually bought his partners out. Phillips went on to found an excursion business in Prince William Sound. Sheffield was set to open another hotel, Anchorage Travelodge on 3rd Avenue, in 1964 just as the Good Friday earthquake struck.
The earthquake damage was repaired, the Travelodge opened, and the chain expanded. Sheffield bought the famous Baranof Hotel in Juneau in the late 1960s and opened a string of hotels in smaller communities around the state, as well as the 13-story Sheffield House at 5th and G streets, a downtown Anchorage landmark (now the Westmark).
There were 19 hotels in the chain when Sheffield sold them to Holland America Line. Most continue in operating today as Westmark hotels.
Meanwhile, Sheffield had met and married his wife Lee. By the late 1970s he was happy in his life, successful in business and ready for new challenges. He had long been a big fundraiser for Democrats and now wanted to run for office himself. He set his sights high, too: the 1978 governor’s race. Tragedy intervened, however. Lee was diagnosed with cancer.
“I dropped everything, politics, running the business, to become her full-time caregiver,” Sheffield remembers.
Lee struggled with her cancer for one year with Sheffield constantly at her side, finally succumbing in 1978. She died at home, in Sheffield’s arms.
It took a while to recover from Lee’s loss, but the aim for the governor’s mansion was eventually reset for 1982. The stars were aligned for that. A bond proposition to pay for moving the state capital from Juneau was on the ballot, as was a referendum on rural subsistence. Sheffield opposed moving the capital, which gave him the Southeast vote, and supported subsistence, which helped get rural votes.
He was lucky, too, that in the Republican primary Tom Fink, a conservative Anchorage Republican, defeated charismatic Lt. Gov. Terry Miller of Fairbanks, a Republican moderate. In the contest against Sheffield, Fink was pro-capitol move and anti-subsistence, positions that played mainly to his Anchorage constituency.
Sheffield won handily with his support from other parts of the state.
Tim Bradner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.