Joyce Kerttula died Monday at age 91 after a long fight with lymphoma, but not before helping two generations of Kerttulas rise to political power in the state.
Beth Kerttula, the girl with the bunny in the photo, likens her mom to a 61st legislator who made Jay Kerttula’s historic rise to power possible.
“My dad’s the only guy to have ever been both speaker and president of the Senate, and I just, I never could figure out how he could have ever done that until I was in and realized, you know, it’s because of my mother. If you have someone working with you who you trust implicitly and who works side by side, and who really is a, frankly a second legislator, you can get a lot done. And that’s what happened. They were a tremendous team,” Kerttula says.
Beth Kerttula represented Juneau in the Alaska House for 15 years.
Jay Kerttula represented Palmer in the Alaska Legislature for 34 years, and Joyce Kerttula worked alongside him as an unpaid volunteer for almost that entire time.
In a 2014 interview, Joyce recalled how her unofficial career in the legislature began with an office visit. His secretary pulled open – then shut – a desk drawer that was full of papers.
“And I said, ‘Would you mind telling me what was in that drawer?’ And she says ‘Oh, that’s letters that I don’t know how to answer and I’ll get to them one of these days.’ And I said would you mind if I looked at one of them?’ And I pulled one out at the bottom and not the top and it was over a month old. And I said this can’t go on.”
Beth Kerttula picks up the story from there.
“And my mom just sat down and started writing, writing letters on one of those old Underwood typewriters. And she just kept going, and that was it,” she says.
Thirty-some years later, she was still at it. Joyce Kerttula handled the legislative offices, the campaigns and constituents. In her obituary, the family calls Joyce Kerttula “the heart and soul” of her husband’s legislative offices.
Originally from Oklahoma, she was born Helen Joyce Campbell in 1923. After finishing college, she left Oklahoma to be a personal assistant to a scientist working on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, where she witnessed a test detonation of an atomic bomb.
She moved to Alaska in 1954 and taught English at Palmer High School. She met and married Jay in 1955. Joyce Kerttula’s unofficial career in the Alaska Legislature began after he was sworn into office in 1961.
An Alaska memorial service is in the works for the summer. She had been living in Palmer, but was in Palm Springs, Calif., for medical care when she died.
“My mother used to say, you’ve got to live every day. And I, I’m going to try to emulate that a little bit better,” Beth Kerttula says.
Joyce Kerttula is survived by her husband, daughters, a sister, two grandchildren and a large extended family.
Beth Kerttula shared her mom’s full obituary in this Facebook post:
Rosemarie Alexander contributed to this story.