Most would agree that Fran Ulmer is one of the most accomplished Alaskans: Legislative attorney, state government policy director, Mayor of Junea Lieutenant Governor, university think tank director, university chancellor, and now director of a respected federal research commission. What hasn't Ulmer done?
And yet, at sixty-eight, she still seems young in her career, meeting new challenges in a presidential appointment as chair of the US Arctic Policy Research Commission.
Here are two Ulmer stories, both from her: When she was appointed Governor Jay Hammond's legislative liaison in 1975 (the governor's lobbyist), she found a gift in her desk drawer, left there by Alex Miller, who held her job under Governor Bill Egan.
It was a cigar, a Milley trademark. Ulmer didn't tuck it away as a keepsake. She lit up, put her feet up on Alex Miller's former desk, and puffed away.
Another story that she takes quiet pride in was when she began her first Alaska job as a staff attorney for the Legislature in 1973 in Juneau. Ulmer unexpectedly set an example for professional women--that they didn't have to adhere to an unspoken dresses-only code. Her decision to wear trousers, customary for professional women in Washington, D.C., sent a strong signal to other women in Alaska's capital that they could choose to dress similarly, and they did.
Ulmer grew up in the small Midwestern town of Horicon, Wisconsin, located between Madison and Milwaukee. Her parents owned the town's furniture store and funeral home and she helped with both, including singing for funerals.
Although neither parent attended college, both Ulmer and her older sister did. Ulmer earned an undergraduate degree with a double major in economics and political science and a law degree, both from the University of Wisconsin.
Her choice of a career in public policy seems natural. But it wasn't always so. As a child she wanted to be either a ballerina or a singer. As she grew older she realized that although "performing was exciting and demanding, it looked like an unstable lifestyle, so I opted for something much more predictable."
Music, however, remained a constant in her life. Ulmer went on to sing in college musicals, performed in a USO tour to Greenland and Iceland, and after becoming an Alaskan, sang the National Anthem at the Kingdome to open Alaska Day at a Seattle Mariners game in 1994.
In the late 1960s, when Ulmer finished her undergraduate degree, few women attended professional schools--medicine, engineering, and law. But things were changing.
Susan Davis, a college roommate who now runs a communications firm in Washington, D.C., remembers Ulmer's desire to study law. "She was very focused on a career in government and possibly politics and definitely wanted to be engaged in public service." Ulmer's parents, who were involved in community work, had passed along the desire for public service to their daughter.
Ulmer, too, knew a law degree would allow her to work and advance in the public sector. "I decided law was the best path and an advanced degree would open more doors than...