Veteran lawmaker Jay Kerttula remembered as mentor, statesman and father

In this undated photo, former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford leans back to hear from former Senate President Jay Kerttula. The inscription reads “Beth — This is how I learned everything I know.” (Photo courtesy of Kerttula family collection)

Alaska state flags were lowered to half-mast Friday in honor of Jalmar “Jay” Kerttula, the only state legislator to serve as both senate president and speaker of the house.

Those who knew Kerttula best remember him for his warmth and humor as much as his many political accomplishments.

Remembrances and tributes for Jay Kerttula,92, poured out following the news of his death on Nov. 13.

The lifelong Democrat represented Palmer in the Alaska Legislature from shortly after statehood well into the 1990s.

He played a major role in the formation of state government and the Permanent Fund and was, until recently, the longest-serving legislator in state history.

Former state Senate President Rick Halford, a Republican, remembers Jay as a friend and teacher who never hesitated to reach across the aisle.

“Our working relationship started out on opposite sides. But as is often the case, we learn the most from the people we think we disagree with,” Halford said. “I got a lot of great lessons from him, some of which I didn’t want to learn at the time.”

Gov. Bill Egan signs a bill by Rep. Jay Kerttula, holding his daughter Anna, into law. Also pictured, wife Joyce Kerttula and daughter Beth Kerttula. (Uncredited photo via Alaska House Democrats)

Along with other state leaders, Halford credits Jay with working to ensure Alaska got its share of oil revenue, despite political opposition.

“Without their efforts, we wouldn’t have had the financial resources on which the Permanent Fund is based,” he said.

And of course, Halford added, no picture of Jay is complete without his wife, Joyce, who died in 2015.

She worked by Jay’s side throughout his legislative career, running his office behind the scenes.

Their daughter, Beth Kerttula, represented Juneau in the Alaska House for 15 years. She didn’t realize how important her parents’ working relationship was until she got elected.

“When I got in office, myself, what I understood deeply is how much freedom that gave my father to just do politics and be a legislator, because my mother had it all under control,” Beth Kerttula said.

On his last day in the Legislature, Halford gave his friend’s daughter a photo of himself and Jay conferring during a past session. Jay is ever the mentor, leaning in to whisper some piece of advice in Halford’s ear.

Halford left a message on the photo: “Beth – This is how I learned everything I know.” It sits on her desk to this day.

Beth and her sister, Anna Kerttula de Echave, grew up splitting their time between Palmer and Juneau, going to school in both places.

Anna ended up getting diplomas from both high schools.

Both of them also followed in their parents’ political footsteps.

After leaving the Legislature, Beth became the Director of the National Ocean Council under President Barack Obama. Anna worked for years on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and is now program director of the Arctic Social Science Program at the National Science Foundation.

Jay Kerttula and his daughter Beth Kerttula during lunch in Juneau in February 2020. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Beth said, despite dementia, her father kept his sense of humor to the end.

She thinks that humor may have developed out of necessity. As a child, Jay and his family migrated from Minnesota to join the Matanuska Valley Colony. The New Deal-era program brought farmers from the Midwest to Alaska — but self-sufficiency in the state was hard, and most failed.

Jay’s family managed to establish a successful farm against the odds. He remained a lifelong farmer.

“That enabled him past a lot of hardship, a lot of trouble and, and also to join other people and he could defuse anger or defuse bad things pretty quickly, through that amazing sidestep that having a great sense of humor will do for you.”

Because of the pandemic, Beth said her family will hold off on funeral services for now.

“Then we’ll have a memorial and I’ll let everyone know so they can all come tell the funny, wonderful, sad sometimes, but great stories about my dad, and my mother,” she said.

She knows her dad would have liked that.

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