He fought federal legislation to lock up millions of acres of Alaska lands unnecessarily, and sued the federal government for violating the terms of the Alaska Statehood Act, and yet demonstrated his belief that a Governor, "like the foreman of a ranch" should set aside appropriate lands for conservation.
Hickel believed strongly in building Alaska's science and research capability and supported vocational education. The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward was built with significant help from Hickel as governor, and later as a fundraiser and financial contributor.
Born August 18, 1919, Walter Joseph Hickel grew up on his parents' Dust Bowl tenant farm during the Depression in Claflin, Kansas, arriving in Alaska in 1940 with 37 cents in his pocket. As he sailed into Prince William Sound on the SS Yukon he was overwhelmed by the Wrangell Mountains and Mt. Saint Elias and vowed, "You take care of me, and I'll take care of you."
After several months of odd jobs in Anchorage, young Hickel, 1938 welterweight Golden Gloves champ of Kansas, made a name for himself in a boxing ring in Anchorage. He landed a job at the Alaska Railroad and married Jannice Cannon in 1941. They had one son, Ted; however Jannice became ill and died at the Mayo Clinic in 1943.
In 1945, Hickel married Ermalee Strutz, daughter of Louis and Aline Strutz, pioneering Alaskans. Wally and Ermalee had five more sons - Bob, Wally Jr., Jack, Joe, and Karl, and today they have 21 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.
During WWII, he served as a flight inspector for the armed services checking out newly assembled aircraft, including Lend Lease planes destined for Russia and the Eastern Front. After the war, he founded Hickel Construction Company in 1947 building hundreds of homes in Anchorage and Fairbanks as well as shopping centers and hotels, most notably the Hotel Captain Cook, which he built immediately following the 1964 earthquake that devastated downtown Anchorage.
Ever a big thinker, Hickel predicted that the Arctic would become an opportunity for the world. To advance that goal in 1992, he help found The Northern Forum, and in 1995 established the Institute of the North, an Anchorage-based think tank dedicated to Alaska strategic issues, including caring for and using the "commons" – or commonly-owned lands and resources – to help the people in the North.
In addition to "Who Owns America?" he wrote Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution (2002), later translated into Russian. The Wit and Wisdom of Wally Hickel, a collection of quotations compiled by Malcolm Roberts from his conversations, articles and speeches, was published in 1994.
Like the famed British explorer James Cook, after whom he named his hotel, Hickel sought a transportation corridor to link the East and West across the North. He worked for years to support Russian leaders who favored opening the Northern Sea Route to world commerce.
He helped organize the first "Friendship Flight" which opened the Alaska-Soviet border in 1988. As ice began to retreat in the Arctic, the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, written in part and edited at Hickel's Institute of the North, became the first document of all eight Arctic governments to envision common ground rules and investment for Arctic shipping.