When John Sackett was just 4 years old, he listened to a man scream in pain for three days before dying. The man needed a catheter. None was available in their remote village, Cutoff, on the Koyukuk River in the late 1940s.
"We had no airport, electricity, radio, television, telephone, running water or proper roads," Sackett recalled in a 2010 autobiographical essay.
As a young man, he decided to change that. He was remarkably successful in doing so.
At 21 in 1966, Sackett became the youngest person ever elected to the Alaska Legislature. He spent 18 of the next 20 years representing rural Alaska. In the mid-1960s, he also joined the leadership of Alaska Native organizations advocating for what became the 1971 land claim settlement with the federal government.
In between, he earned a degree in accounting from UAF in 1972. The degree was part of his plan to become an effective advocate for rural Alaska, something he felt he hadn't been in his first four years in the Legislature.
"I had to become a new person, one that my political colleagues would seek out and work with," he wrote. "Political power in the state legislature is something that is given or conferred upon you by others. To sustain it, you must be knowledgeable, trustworthy, fair and honorable. … By 1972, I was ready."
He returned to the Alaska Senate and set to work addressing the needs of rural Alaska. He also went to work as president of Doyon Ltd., the regional for-profit Alaska Native corporation created to accept part of the congressional land and cash settlement. He resigned from Doyon after a few years to focus on his legislative work.
"During my years on the Senate Finance Committee, as either a member or chairman, I was able to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars toward rural priorities," he recalled. "Although, as rural legislators, we were a minority, we worked cooperatively with every majority group on behalf of both rural and statewide priorities. In doing so, we also funded many urban priorities."
Sackett, suffering from severe back pain, decided not to run for office in 1986. He continued working but outside the prominent public positions he had held in his youth. "I have had a wonderful life," he wrote in 2010. "I feel privileged to have lived in both the old ways and the modern world. I have achieved my goals."
UAF presented Sackett with an honorary doctorate in 2013.
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