JUNEAU — Bob Tkacz may not have always been well-liked, but he was always respected, according to those who knew the longtime reporter.
Tkacz was found dead Tuesday evening in his Fourth Street office in Juneau. He was 61.
Lt. David Campbell with the Juneau Police Department reported there were no immediate signs of foul play and nothing that indicated he died of unnatural causes; there were indications of medical issues, but no further details could be shared.
Tkacz, originally from Ohio, graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Newspaper and Magazine Editing, according to his LinkedIn page. Friends and colleagues of Tkacz weren’t certain when he left Ohio and found his way to Petersburg, eventually landing in Juneau. Fellow journalist Gregg Erickson, editor of the Alaska Budget Report, said Tkacz claimed to have covered the Alaska State Legislature for 33 years — and “he’s not the kind of guy who would throw that around unless he was sure of it.”
Tkacz maintained his independence as a journalist, never working for a large paper and freelancing for publications like the Alaska Journal of Commerce and Alaska Budget Report. In addition to covering the legislature, he was known for his reporting on maritime and fisheries issues, publishing his own newsletter “Laws for the Sea,” which he established in 1994.
Fellow journalists respected Tkacz for his unwavering dedication to tell the story as he saw it, saying he made few, if any, compromises along the way.
Alaska Journal of Commerce Editor Andrew Jensen said Tkacz had the “relentless sort of spirit that I think every journalist should aspire to.”
He wasn’t always well-liked, Jensen said, but “I don’t think any journalist should aspire to be well-liked. Bob certainly never worried about that.”
Said longtime friend and colleague Dave Donaldson: “I always wished that everybody was like that. We were supposed to be, that was what our dream was in journalism school anyway.”
Tkacz was at the Capitol every day of session, asking the hardest questions.
“Around the Legislature, he was known for his tenacity and his unshakeable honesty,” Erickson said. “He’d ask the same question again and again and again until they answered or shut him up in a not-so-gentle way.”
Former State Rep. Beth Kerttula remembered him as “asking the really tough, sometimes embarrassing questions.”
“Sometimes I was on the other side of it,” Kerttula admitted. “And that could make you feel uncomfortable about it. But Bob was always after the truth, and there’s not much higher you can say about a reporter.”
Former State Sen. Kim Elton, who also served as a newspaper editor, executive director of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and most recently with the Department of the Interior, had a number of experiences with Tkacz, He said their encounters that stand out most were at press conferences.
“He was the person who would ask the question that other journalists wanted to ask but didn’t know how to do it,” he said.
Elton said he pictured Tkacz fitting in well in a 1940s film, though he didn’t chew on unlit cigars.
“He was kind of pugnacious, but in a good way,” Elton said. “Some people thought him impolite, but I liked the way he didn’t let anybody not answer the question — in politics that can be difficult. The follow up question to the follow up question to the follow up question was Bob’s hallmark.”
Tom Cosgrove, a friend of Tkacz for about 20 years, said one thing Tkacz was particularly proud of in his career was his role in keeping the pressroom in the Capitol from shutting down.
“He basically refused to leave the Capitol. There was a huge fight between (Legislative) Affairs and him. They were pretty much tearing down the office around him,” Cosgrove said. “He fought to get the press room that is now downstairs.”
With his many years of experience, he was referred to as a “human encyclopedia” or “human database” on both Alaska politics and fisheries.
Barbara Belknap served as executive director for ASMI starting in 1997 and said she interacted with Tkacz frequently.
“He was everywhere there was anything to do with fisheries,” she said.
When there were hearings about the funding of ASMI, Belknap said Tkacz would show up at each one with a notebook, taking notes.
Though the most common descriptor for Tkacz might be “fiercely independent,” he was also known to have a sense of humor.
“He was a hard-nosed reporter with a huge heart,” Kerttula said. “He had a real heart for people and he was funny. That’s so rare.”
Cosgrove said Tkacz “had an absolute Rasputin look about him,” and a sense of humor about how he looked and how he presented himself.
Alaska was the right place for him, Cosgrove added. “It gave him the latitude to be both a professional and an oddball… he was where he needed to be.”
Others who knew him agreed.
“He was a real character. You’ll hear a lot of people say that. He’s a rarity,” Kerttula said. “Most of us are trying so hard to fit in and be part of the group — Bob was a real individual. Iconoclastic wouldn’t be too big a word to use about Bob.”
An avid sailor, Tkacz lived on a boat and got out on the water whenever possible. Cosgrove also described him as “an adventure traveler” who explored new places “under the guise of learning more about fisheries and fishing.”
Jazz was another passion of Tkacz, who had a show on radio station KRNN.
Donaldson said if Tkacz hadn’t been a political and fisheries reporter, he’d have been most happy reporting on music.
“He would go in the evenings to jazz clubs in Beijing and Seoul; that’s what he would talk about,” Donaldson said. “He would talk about these wonderful musicians and wished he could get them to play here in the U.S.”
However people knew him, the consensus is that Tkacz’ death is a huge loss for Alaska.
Kerttula voiced the sentiments of many when she said: “I’m going to miss him terribly as a friend, and the state’s going to miss him as a great reporter.”
Reactions from those Tkacz covered:
Gov. Sean Parnell: “Sandy and I were sad to hear that Bob Tkacz had passed away earlier this week. As a longtime member of the Capitol press corps, his absence will be felt by many. Bob’s persistence and understanding of Alaska government and issues will be missed. We extend our condolences to Bob’s family and friends, as well as his colleagues in the press.”
Sen. Mark Begich: “I was saddened to learn today about the death of Bob Tkacz. Bob was an institution among Alaska media. He was tough, tenacious and very, very persistent but he always had the best interests of his readers in mind. The Alaska press lost a great asset.”
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage: “Bob was an institution in the Capitol press corps. He brought a unique candor and distinctly direct approach to reporting. He was a friend to Alaska and his presence will be sorely missed,”
Former House Democratic Press Secretary Mark Gnadt: “Bob Tkacz wouldn’t let anyone duck the hard questions, and Alaska is a better place for it. Many times I would warn legislators with ‘Bob won’t let you get away with that answer.’ Bob Tkacz was the one reporter you wanted to show up at the other guys’ press conferences.”