Contributed by Vic Kohring
Well known Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley departed this earth last month, two days before his 89th birthday.
I had the honor of knowing him from my graduate school days at Alaska Pacific University in the late 1980’s. At the time, Hurley was vice chairman of the university’s board of trustees while I was president of the student body. Through my role representing students, I developed a friendship with Hurley. Not a close one, but still something special.
Hurley was appointed Archbishop of the Anchorage Diocese by Pope Paul IV in May 1976, the month I graduated high school. Little did I know that a decade later, I would have the opportunity to get acquainted with him on a personal level while a student at APU. The first time I saw Hurley - but several years before I got to know him – was when Pope John Paul II visited Alaska on February 26, 1981, 35 years ago this month. The pope flew to Anchorage and traveled by motorcade into downtown to the Holy Family Cathedral, where Hurley was waiting to greet him. I drove in from Wasilla to witness the event and stood directly across the street with my brother Jim, maybe 100 feet away.
The pope stepped out of his open black limousine and embraced Hurley on the steps outside the cathedral. I remember being nervous for their safety after what happened in Dallas, Texas 17 years before, as the cathedral was squeezed between tall buildings where a sniper could easily hide out as with Kennedy’s assassin.
Afterward, the pope made a short trip in his “Popemobile” - a modified pickup truck with what appeared to be a plexi-glass shield (I expected thick, bullet proof glass) surrounding him on three sides - to the Park Strip where he celebrated mass with Hurley and an estimated 65,000 cheering people, equivalent to about a third the population of Anchorage and the largest gathering of people in Alaska’s history to this day. It was awe inspiring to witness.
On the way to mass, the pope slowly passed by my brother and I just a feet away along a narrow, roped off corridor on the grounds of the Park Strip. I still have the photo I took.
I didn’t know Hurley well, but well enough to know he was a sincere, humble man of God and a model of decency. He had an underlying kindness, a gentle spirit and warm demeanor, always making me feel special and with a real compassion for people while emanating Christ’s love. As a non-Catholic Christian who has enjoyed attending mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Wasilla, I admired his personal qualities, especially the fact that he genuinely cared about you as a person no matter who you were.
At the time of my election as head of APU’s student body in December 1987, Hurley sent me a congratulatory letter, something I treasured and have kept to this day as a memento. Several months later, I made a presentation to the board of trustees of a class project while Hurley presided as vice chairman, at the request of the Dean of Students. Despite the powerhouse board and big name members looking on including ex-Governor and former U.S. Interior Secretary Walter Hickel and Larry Carr, founder of the Carrs grocery store chain, Hurley and his colleagues made me feel comfortable and at ease. The presentation went well and I was given high marks.
Hurley’s legacy includes his role helping the less fortunate. He established the Brother Francis Shelter to house the homeless, Clare House, a shelter for women and children and Covenant House, a shelter for teens. Through the years, he officiated over the funeral services of many including two prominent people key in my life, Governor Hickel and former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens. Hickel, who appointed me to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation Board of Directors in 1991, and Stevens, whom I got to know as a legislator and who was tied directly to my legal fiasco as a major figure in the government’s botched Polar Pen case.
Farewell to a kind and decent man, a role model to many and someone who made a strong, lasting impression on me. Thank you for the special memories kind sir and for touching my heart. Requiescat in Pace. Rest in peace.