Alaska Mourns Ex-Governor, Game Show Appearance Recalled

Saturday, 01 Mar 2014 10:23 AM

By John Gizzi

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With the death of Mike Stepovich at 94 on Feb. 14, Alaskans turned out Friday for one of their largest official funerals to mourn their last territorial governor.

In recalling Republican Stepovich — Fairbanks lawyer, father of 13, and World War II veteran — Alaskans from Sarah Palin and GOP Gov. Sean Parnell hailed his efforts in the continental United States to generate support for the statehood that came in 1959.

Special: Powerful New Movie Reveals Alarming Threats on U.S. Border – See Trailer Here.

One of most-recalled of Stepovich's endeavors was a unique feat for its day: an appearance as the "mystery guest" on "What's My Line?" — one of television's most popular game shows of its day.

A weekly fixture on CBS-TV from 1950-1967 — and winner of three Emmy Awards and the Golden Globe for Best TV Show in 1962 — "What's My Line?" captured the public's imagination with its unique format.

Every week, a "mystery guest" would sign in on a chalkboard and answer "yes" or "no" to questions from four panelists trying to guess the guest's occupation.

When Stepovich signed in on Jan. 19, 1958, erudite host John Charles Daly was a familiar fixture to American audiences. So were the three regular panelists: actress Arlene Francis, gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and publisher Bennett Cerf.

The fourth seat "revolved" to different panelist every week. On the night Stepovich appeared, the fourth seat was occupied by a young actor named Ricardo Montalban, later world-famous as "Mr. Rourke" on TV's popular "Fantasy Island."

When Stepovich uttered a "yes" to Bennett Cerf's question, "You do not work for a profit-making organization," the publisher then asked if he worked for the federal government. The governor again said yes, as the territorial governor was appointed by the president and thus a federal employee.

Montalban asked if the guest's job "was a very useful thing to both men and women" — eliciting a "yes" — and whether he wore a uniform, which brought a "no."

When columnist Kilgallen asked if anyone on the panel could do Stepovich's job, emcee Daly intervened to "rule no, on the basis that no one on the panel, to the best of my knowledge, is sufficiently trained to perform this function."

Cerf came close to clinching Stepovich's identity, when he asked if he was one of "those make-believe senators" Alaska sent to Washington. At the time, the territory sent two non-voting senators and one non-voting delegate to the House to push for statehood.

It finally took a huddle of the panel to come up with the right question, which was posed by Kilgallen: "Are you the territorial governor of Alaska?"

The answer left publisher Cerf a bit embarrassed because, as he admitted, "I published Gov. Gruening's book." He was referring to Democrat Ernest Gruening, former territorial governor, who had written a book making the case for statehood.

John Charles Daly closed the show by giving Stepovich an unexpected prize: his endorsement of statehood. Alaska is "a wonderful territory," Daly said, and would make "a very nice 49th state."

On June 30, 1958, Congress voted for statehood for Alaska.

"WE'RE IN!" blared the headline of the Anchorage Daily Times, which a beaming Stepovich held up for photographers in the White House as he was flanked by President Dwight Eisenhower, who signed statehood into law seven days later, and Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton.

For all he did to secure statehood, Stepovich never won elective office after Alaska joined the union.

He narrowly lost the state's first U.S. Senate race to Gruening, a close race for governor in 1962 to Democrat Bill Egan, and a 1966 Republican primary for governor to Walter Hickel, who would go on to become U.S. secretary of the interior and was again elected governor as an independent in 1990.

But Alaskans never forgot Stepovich and they never forgot "What's My Line?"

"Mike was a booster of the best kind," the state's Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Tredwell told Newsmax. "Whether he was on the cover of Time Magazine or appearing on the hit TV show of the time, 'What's My Line?', he used every bully pulpit the governorship of Alaska could give him to sell Americans on the idea that Alaska is worth it. We're not 'Seward's Folly,' and as a state we contribute to America."

Special: Powerful New Movie Reveals Alarming Threats on U.S. Border – See Trailer Here.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.


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