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Ted Stevens a towering figure in Alaska

By Jim Kavanagh, CNN
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Ted Stevens' history-making legacy
  • Former senator from Alaska served in post for 40 years
  • Ted Stevens a decorated World War II pilot, had Anchorage airport renamed for him
  • Stevens survived 1978 crash in which his first wife died
  • His legislative agenda was hard to pin down but always pro-Alaska

(CNN) -- Aviation gave and aviation took away throughout Ted Stevens' adult life.

The former U.S. senator, who died with several other people aboard a plane that crashed Monday night near Dillingham, Alaska, was a decorated Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, and the international airport in Anchorage, Alaska, was renamed in his honor in 2000.

Stevens survived the crash of a Learjet at that airport in 1978, but his first wife, Ann, and four other people perished. He remarried in 1980.

Often re-elected to the Senate with a share of the vote approaching 80 percent, Stevens served 40 years and 10 days and was the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history. (Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was a Democrat for part of his 47-year tenure.)

Stevens earned the nickname "Uncle Ted" and a reputation as one of the most effective of all pork-barrel lawmakers, a senator who funneled billions of federal dollars to his home state.

Video: Stevens' Senate farewell speech
Video: Stevens family's statement on crash
  • Ted Stevens
  • Alaska
  • U.S. Senate

Stevens' Senate career ended in 2008 when he lost his bid for re-election, done in by a conviction in federal court days before the vote. A federal judge set aside the conviction the following April, citing prosecutorial misconduct.

Stevens was convicted of seven counts of making false statements on Senate financial disclosure forms. The jury found Stevens failed to report about $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his house in Alaska between 1999 and 2006, paid for by the head of a large oil-services company.

However, the Justice Department later acknowledged that Stevens' attorneys were not given access to notes from an interview with the government's key witness against Stevens. The notes show that responses given by the witness, oil industry executive Bill Allen, were inconsistent with testimony he made in court.

Despite the legal victory, Stevens was then 85 years old, and his seemingly unstoppable political career was over.

After losing campaigns in 1962, 1964 and 1968, Stevens was appointed to the Senate by Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel following the 1968 death of Sen. E.L. "Bob" Bartlett.

Alaskans chose in 1970 to let Stevens complete Bartlett's term, then re-elected him with 77 percent of the vote in 1972. He pushed the Senate to approve the Trans-Alaska Pipeline by a single vote in 1973, creating thousands of jobs and a reliably rich source of revenue for the state.

Voters returned him to Washington five more times, giving him less than 71 percent of the vote just once -- in 1990, when he took 66 percent.

With his long tenure and huge electoral mandate, Stevens became a powerful figure in the Senate. He chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005. He headed up the Commerce Committee from 2005-2006, and either chaired or was the ranking Republican on the defense appropriations subcommittee for 20 years, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Stevens' legislative record was hard to label. He supported drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve but also won restrictions on commercial fishing to restore severely depleted salmon stocks. He was a staunch supporter of military spending as well as public broadcasting.

During a 2006 debate over "net neutrality," Stevens was ridiculed for describing the internet as "a series of tubes" that can become congested with high data traffic. Stevens also was one of the forces behind the infamous $400 million "bridge to nowhere" project that Sarah Palin initially supported but later killed as governor of Alaska.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Stevens directed more than $3 billion in federal money to Alaska from 1995 to 2008.

"We ask for special consideration because no one else is that far away, no one else has the problems that we have or the potential that we have, and no one else deals with the federal government day in and day out the way we do," Stevens once said, according to the almanac.

A group called Citizens Against Government Waste bestowed its "Oinker Award" on Stevens 10 times, but a state committee named him "Alaskan of the Century" in 2000.

Theodore F. Stevens was born on November 18, 1923, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His parents divorced, and he went to live with an aunt in California in 1938, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

After high school he joined the Army Air Corps, where he earned the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross while piloting cargo planes in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.

After the war, Stevens received degrees from UCLA and Harvard Law School, got married and moved to Alaska to practice law in 1952. He was appointed a U.S. attorney in Fairbanks the following year.

Stevens worked in the Eisenhower administration's Interior Department during the 1950s and returned to private law practice in Alaska after John F. Kennedy's election in 1960. He was first elected to the state Legislature in 1964 and served there until his appointment to the Senate.

Stevens and his second wife, Catherine, had one child; his first marriage produced five children.

CNN's Joe Sterling contributed to this report.