That time the Alaska governor's mansion had a pirate radio station, basement brewery

 The Alaska governor's mansion in June 2017.
The Alaska governor's mansion in June 2017. (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 7, 2017 at 8:32 PM AKDT
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Dennis Egan was a hell-raising 12-year-old in 1959 when his father, Bill, became the first governor when the Last Frontier achieved statehood.

The Egans moved into the mansion that territorial governors had called home since 1912, and by the time it was all said and done, the boy who has since become Juneau's state senator spent more than a decade in that house.

While Dennis had a front row seat to state history in the making, like all kids, at times, immediate concerns seemed far more interesting.

Here are some of his stories about what it was like to be a kid in the governor's mansion during those years:

A pirate radio station in the attic.

Dennis, who would later spend a career in the radio business, got an early start in the industry. As a young teen, he scrounged the equipment needed to broadcast from the third floor of the mansion, and he started playing records, even though he did not have a license required by the Federal Communications Commission. Soon after a neighbor complained that their TV signal was weak, the gig was up: "My Dad comes home and says, 'We're getting complaints about this radio station,'" Dennis recalls. "I said, 'I don't know anything about it,' and then I went and shut off the radio station. I actually had a pretty good following by then." Even with broadcasting out of the picture, the attic studio remained, and Dennis started recording local bands. One of those groups, The Gatormen, had one song that ended up taking off in Seattle, Hey Girl. "A band having the recording studio on the third floor of the governor's mansion, that's a pretty novel concept," said Rich Poor, one of the band's members. "I remember having the governor come in and visit with us and having the first lady Neva coming in and encouraging us."

The Gatormen stand on the Alaska State Ferry.
Basement brewery.

While the focus upstairs was music, in the basement, young Dennis instead worked another craft: brewing. "Actually, I got pretty good at doing beer," he said. "I worked at Foodland as a box boy, and we used to throw all this stuff away, and they replaced the piping in the furnace system so they took all the hot water pipes out and made it forced air. So the pipes were still in there, so might as well use the water system to recirculate the stuff, and it worked pretty well. A high school friend of mine that got caught selling the stuff or using the stuff said, 'Oh no, Egan gave it to me.' Thanks a lot." Poor, the musician, recalls the bust as happening after the governor pushed the Juneau mayor to crack down on youth drinking. Says Poor, "The mayor told the chief of police, 'We've got to do something about this, you know? The governor's watching us.' They told the chief of police to go clean things up, and the first place they hit was the governor's mansion and find out that Dennis had a brewery in his basement there and was having a good time."

Secretary of the house.

In the early days of statehood, the governor had a shoestring staff compared to what the state's executive does today. As a result, when the phone rang, Neva Egan, Alaska's first first lady, would answer the phone and say that she was the governor's "secretary," Dennis said, adding, "Our phone number used to be in the book."

A leap of faith.

Dennis had a pink washer and dryer in his third-floor bedroom and a laundry chute that led to the basement. When the house was free of adults, kids would go downstairs and fill a hamper with pillow and blankets, then run upstairs and make a leap of faith. Clark Gruening, who also passed through the house when his grandfather, Ernest, was a territorial governor, remembers the laundry chute well. "On the way down, you better keep close, because it was kind of a tin sheet and if there was any little rough part on it you were going to lose a little skin on the way down," he said. "It was a fun time. I think a lot of the kids, the grandkids of our governors have had a lot of fun being in that place. There was a room down at the bottom, in the basement, that had a pool table, but it was totally dark. There were no windows or anything else, and you had this room that you could go into it and shut the door, and it was absolutely dark. There was no light whatsoever. So you tried to figure out how many times you could make it around the pool table or do something, but that was kind of a place to scare yourself."

Who shot Peter the Great?

When you walk into the governor's house, above a winding staircase, there is a massive painting of Peter the Great, the Russian emperor who ordered Vitus Bering to explore the waters east of his sprawling empire, which led to Russia's discovery of Alaska. Even when Dennis was a kid, the painting had hung there for decades, and one version of events suggests the painting was around even before the U.S. purchased the Last Frontier from Russia. That priceless painting, whatever its exact origin, ended up at the center of a disagreement that has lasted six decades. In the early sixties, someone shot holes near Peter's eyes with a BB-gun. "I was accused of a lot of things in this house, but not Peter the Great," Dennis says. "I did not do Peter the Great." He points the finger at the grandsons of Ernest Gruening, a territorial governor, more than likely Clark. Both of the possible culprits have gray hair and grandchildren now, but neither gives an inch on their version of events. "He likes to kid me like I had a BB gun and did it, but I never had a BB gun to shoot at that thing," Clark says. "I could see Dennis could've done it." The two are friends, nonetheless, and the state library years ago was able to patch up the painting enough that you could only see signs of the tale with intense examination.

A massive earthquake when the inventor of the hydrogen bomb was visiting.

The governor's mansion is a place to entertain visiting dignitaries of all types, and one of the people who passed through the doors was Dr. Edward Teller, one of the key inventor behind the hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear weapon 25 times stronger than the bomb that wreaked havoc on Hiroshima. He was there to meet with Bill, the governor, to promote Project Chariot, a failed initiative to build an artificial deepwater harbor on the North Slope by burying and detonating a string of nuclear devices. As Dennis recalls, his father, who opposed the project, left to attend to other business, leaving only the 16-year-old, his mother, and Teller to have dinner with one another. "All of a sudden, the building started shaking," says Dennis, "and Dr. Teller says, 'Earthquake. And I can predict the epicenter of the earthquake,' And he's talking about so many miles off Cape Spencer and all these crazy things. Well, then my mom says, 'No, that's not an earthquake. It's an air handler in the furnace that lost a bearing last night, and the building's shaking until they get it fixed.' So Dr. Teller had to apologize for misclassifying the earthquake."

He didn't start the fire.

One of the many things Dennis was accused of as a kid was starting a fire that threatened to burn the whole house down. For the record, he says the actual culprit was that faulty furnace. The blaze did lead to one thing that benefited Dennis, though. The fire department followed up with a survey and decided the house needed escape ladders: "It was perfect for me because I just used the escape ladders so I could sneak off the balcony on the second floor."

Driving for a swim.

"A friend of mine had a car called a Mini Morris, which is much smaller than even these new fangled small cars. It had a three cylinder engine, and it was like a lawnmower engine. We'd go out on Dredge Lake Road, and we'd hit the emergency brake and we'd spin around and do all kinds of cool things. Well, we spun a little too far, and we went into a place called Dredge Lake, and the car sunk. We got it out of the lake, and we put it on a guy's pickup truck, on the flatbed of the pickup -- it was that small -- and we're trying to figure out a way to drive the thing out, so I said, 'Well heck, the garage doors are big enough in this place. We can just put it in the furnace room.' So we brought this Mini Morris through the garage, went through the sliding doors into the furnace room, and didn't think anything about it because we were going to dry the thing out. Well, problem is, when things get warm, gas expands. And my dad came home from working over at the Capitol, and the whole house was full of the smell of gas fumes. I didn't smell it. I was asleep. He went down into the basement, and here's this Mini Morris, this car in the furnace room. And gas is leaking, and oh my god. He's fuming, and we have to get it out right away."

Secret seal.

One way or another, Dennis and a friend managed to take a big chunk of plaster out of the wall above the fireplace, but it ended up revealing one mark that still stays with the house today. "This was all covered back in the territorial days," he says, pointing at the fireplace, "and we we ripped some stuff off by mistake, and we found the seal of the District of Alaska, which I think was really cool."