Last Friday, I sat down with Alaska’s new First Lady for about an hour and a half in the family’s beautiful Turnagain home, a home with a view of the inlet that her husband, Gov. Bill Walker built. He’s handy like that, she said. Building things, moving things around, pounding nails is his therapy, she said, which she admitted can be a mixed blessing. If she’s the steady one, the homebody, the one who pays the bills and keeps the family on schedule, he’s always on the move, always fixing things, often enlisting the help of those around him. His children’s friends used to call the new governor, “the animal” because he had so much energy.
“Don’t get around Mr. Walker unless you’re ready to knock down a wall,” the kids said.
The home has some Alaska art on the walls. But the dominant decorations are the pictures of the four Walker children, and now a few of their children, with more little ones on the way.
We’ve heard a lot about Bill Walker, but I wanted to hear more about his wife Donna. I wanted to meet her. I hardly knew anything about her. And if I didn’t, chances are I’m not alone. Most who have seen her on television, say, or on the campaign trail, would likely describe her as a strong, independent woman. And she is. She’s the first First Lady of Alaska with a law degree. Ask anybody who was involved in the campaign and they’ll tell you how involved she was, how keenly smart she is and how she kept everything organized and kept the wheels running.
But I, and I’m also not alone here, was raised during a time when strong and independent women who were political wives were also likely to harbor Hillary-like ambitions. What I found out is that that’s not Donna Walker.
Let me be clear: Except when it comes to her family—which she can talk about forever–Donna isn’t the easiest person to squeeze things out of. It’s not that she’s cold, or withdrawn, or nervous, or really even particularly reticent. She’s very gracious and very happy enough to talk about her life, how she grew up, how she met her husband, her plans as first lady, if you ask her questions. But she’s not gushy. People who are confident in their faith—she’s a devout Christian—and who know what they are, tend not to be. She’s also a lawyer, and she knows how to stick with a script.
But there are just some things you can’t fake. And this is the message I took away from my time with Donna, which I found surprising: Those grandchildren are her joy, and although she has plans for her role as a first lady—plans that tie nicely into her own personal experiences growing up, as well as the unity theme that her husband ran on–her bigger aspirations are to continue being a good mother and a good grandmother.
Her family is her life, she said. Everything takes a backseat to them. Whatever she’s accomplished—her interesting background in the racially divided Deep South, the cases she litigated, that fact that as a twenty-two year old fresh out of college she made her way to Alaska—pales in comparison to what she’s accomplished as a mother, she said.
And they are impressive accomplishments. Those children were not left to fend for themselves. They were raised. If you’re anything like me, when you’re in the room with the Walker bunch, you get the feeling that you’re in the room with a different species, a long-legged, white toothed smart bunch, exuding self-esteem, energy, and sincere wide smiles.
How had she managed to raise these children so well, while trying cases and handling her husband’s building obsession and political aspirations? She tried to take cases which she could handle from home, she said. She also often stayed up until two or three in the morning working, which precipitated a “serious insomnia” problem that still haunts her.
She also had good role models in her own parents, Ed and Dee Pyle and her African American nanny, Florence Fumby, whom she loved. Today, a nanny might seem like an indulgence, but in 1950s Aniston, Alabama, where she was born and raised, it was a normal part of everyday life. Also, because both of her parents worked—her father in the civil service and her mother as a secretary— they needed help with the four kids.
Florence was with the family all through her childhood, and through those first confusing years of pre-adolescence, particularly during the age of confusing racial tensions in the Deep South while Aniston saw some of the worst racially motivated violence. Donna was in 7th grade when her middle school was integrated. She’s reticent to talk about what she witnessed in her school, but one sharp memory that stayed with her and about which she talks only reluctantly, was of a boy in her school being beaten because he was black.
“It was horrible,” she said, but Florence was always there to help her understand and walk through the difficult times, and help Donna see the world through her eyes.
And if all that was confusing to a pre-teen, try moving half-way through 7th grade, thousands of miles away, away from Florence and the extended family, to another universe called Hawaii, where her father took a job. Her father had fought in the Korean War, so for him it wasn’t as big of a stretch as it was for her mother, say nothing of the kids.
Hawaii is a beautiful place, but the schools can be brutal to outsiders, particularly blond girls wearing pig tails and speaking in Southern drawls. It didn’t help that on the first day of school, Donna’s mother dressed her and her sister in long Easter dresses and matching trench coats.
“It was a horrific first week. We were practically locked out of the school,” she said. However, she’ll always remember the other kids who stepped up to defend them.
Eventually, it worked out. She learned how to fit in, how to be Hawaii-mellow, how to surf, how to lead cheers, and how to study. She was the head cheerleader in high school and the vice president of her 9th grade class and was on prom court. But most importantly to her parents, she was a National Merit Scholar.
Armed with a degree in public administration from San Diego State, she made her way to Alaska during the pipeline boom days, where eventually she met Bill, who was unlike all the boys that she had known. Where they were interested in rock-and-roll and partying, he was interested in history and in politics, and full of ideas. And in his personal life, he was “an old school boy,” she said.
Six months after they met, they were married.
A few years later—at her urging, and after Walker was elected as mayor of Valdez –they both headed off to the University of Puget Sound School of Law together, and then worked at the same firm right out of law school, together, then opened up their law firm, together. They had children which they raised together and they ran the campaign together. And no doubt, like many first ladies, she’ll be his most trusted adviser and confidant. And no doubt, at least in part, they’ll run the state together.
Maybe it was the come-down from the grueling campaign, the fact that the state’s financial situation seems so dismal and will require that her husband assume an enormous burden; but as we talked, she seemed more excited about her role as grandmother—both her middle daughter Tessa and her daughter-in-law Sabrina are expecting soon—and about perhaps taking on a more traditional first-lady role by carving out specific initiatives, rather than about involving herself deeply in policy formulation.
One of Nancy Murkowski’s primary initiatives was breast cancer. Todd Palin’s stated initiative was vocational education. Sandy Parnell’s was sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Donna said that she’s happy to continue Sandy’s work. But she seemed particularly enthusiastic when she talked about the possibility of wrapping the unity theme, the theme of her husband’s campaign, particularly of racial and ethnic unity, into something lasting. She’s a huge fan of Bridge Builders, the Anchorage group that brings cultural groups together. She wants to take that model statewide.
It would be a natural for her, given her background, and it touches on a huge issue in this state.
Diversity is also a large emphasis of Faith Christian Community Church, the church that she and the governor belong to in Anchorage, and for which she’s undertaken numerous overseas missions.
In the church’s sanctuary, there are flags from nations around the world representing the home countries of the church’s membership. The congregation is as diverse as any you’ll find in the city.
“I imagine it’s a close proximity to what heaven looks like,” Donna said.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org