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Legislature recommends naming Kenai Peninsula mountain after Gail Phillips

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Courtesy of Kathryn Thomas
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Kate and Steven DeBardelaben point to Gail's mountain, across Turnagain Arm.

Gail Phillips represented the southern Kenai Peninsula on a host of local boards and councils, eventually serving in the Alaska Legislature as the two-time speaker of the House in the 1990s.

But her reputation preceded her well beyond the Kenai, said her long-time friend Kathryn Thomas, of Soldotna.

“Through the time that she was in the House of Representatives and ran for office, I was always amazed, wherever we were in the state, people knew Gail," she said. "She knew them, they always thought that she was their advocate, she was their best friend. She supported their projects, she listened to them.”

Phillips, a lifelong Alaskan, passed away in March 2021 at the age of 76 from cancer.

Now, her friends and family are working to root her legacy in the place she called home. The Alaska Legislature voted last month to support naming a mountain on Turnagain Arm after Phillips, which they’d call Gail Phillips Peak.

Thomas said the mountain, next to Hope Peak on the Kenai Peninsula, is the perfect place for a tribute. It’s inclusive of a lot of what Phillips cared about in her lifetime.

“This particular mountain, you can see from the home that Gail and Walt built in Anchorage," she said. "It’s directly across from McHugh Creek, a beautiful vista there. And the toe of the mountain is at Hope. And she loved gold mining, it’s something her family did.”

Phillips was born in Juneau in 1944.

The child of missionaries, she grew up in Council and Nome. Thomas said that’s where she got her boundless energy.

“She was raised in a very active family in Nome and that carried over to Gail’s involvement in business and her community and her political commitment to Alaska," she said.

She got involved in politics in high school and then in college in Fairbanks. She was a lifetime Republican and staunch supporter of resource development in the state.

In 1978, Phillips and her husband Walt moved to Homer and opened an outdoor recreation store there, Quiet Sports. Phillips served on the Homer City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. For a decade, she represented the southern Kenai Peninsula in the Alaska House, including as the twice-elected speaker. She was the second ever woman to hold that role.

Her time working as a legislative aide in the late 1980s was how Thomas came to know her. Thomas’ son was in Juneau at the same time.

“And he told Gail, and he told his mother, that we would become best friends as soon as we met. And he was right," Thomas said.

She said they both really cared about the economic direction the state was headed in — Phillips as a lifelong Alaskan who was privy to the booms and busts of the state’s economy, and Thomas as a small business owner.

As anticipated, the two became friends. And then their families did, too.

“Knowing Gail meant that you became part of Gail’s circle of friends," Thomas said. "Gail always tried to bring everyone along. She had you interact, she had the families interact. It was networking, Gail style.”

The connection spanned generations. Thomas’s granddaughter, Kate DeBardelaben, said she considered Phillips part of the family.

“Gail would always include us in her conversations about the Legislature," DeBardelaben said. "She would always make us feel important and include our opinions.”

Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson sponsored the resolution in the Legislature this session.

During a committee meeting, he said Phillips created coalitions in the political sphere much like she did with her friends and family.

"She brought together urban Republicans and rural Democrats to form a coalition that she led as speaker of the House for two consecutive terms," he said.

He said the mountain is an apt memorial for Phillips because it was one of her favorites. But also, he said, it’s emblematic of her character.

"The mountains are stable, strong and brave," he said. "Gail Phillips lived her life in these defining attributes.”

The mountain name isn’t legally changed, yet. The motion from the Legislature is a recommendation and the Phillips family will have to wait before they can legally request a name change. Then, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will make a final decision.