National News

Alaska Bishops Join in Mourning Congresswoman’s Husband Killed in Plane Crash

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, and her husband, Eugene Peltola Jr., are pictured smiling in an Aug. 31, 2022, photo in Anchorage. Eugene, a Catholic, died in a plane crash in a remote portion of western Alaska Sept. 12, 2023. Alaska’s Catholic bishops extended their condolences to the congresswoman and her family upon hearing the news. (Photo: OSV News/Kerry Tasker, Reuters)

By Kate Scanlon

(OSV News) — Alaska’s Catholic bishops joined in extending condolences upon the news that Eugene Peltola Jr., the husband of Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, who died in a plane crash in a remote portion of western Alaska Sept. 12. The bishops said Peltola was a “devout Catholic” with a large family known for his “philosophy of sharing and taking care of others.”

Peltola’s office announced the news the day following the tragedy.

“We are devastated to share that Mary’s husband, Eugene Peltola Jr. — ‘Buzzy’ to all of us who knew and loved him — passed away earlier this morning following a plane accident in Alaska,” Sam Erickson, Peltola’s communications director, said in a Sept. 13 statement. “He was one of those people that was obnoxiously good at everything. He had a delightful sense of humor that lightened the darkest moments.”

The statement asked for privacy for the Peltola family as they grieve and said the congresswoman would spend some time in Alaska with her loved ones.

Eugene Peltola was previously regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska and worked for more than three decades for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in that state. As a tribal member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, he was also once vice mayor and council member for Bethel, Alaska.

Alaska officials and the Federal Aviation Administration have said Peltola, 57, was the pilot and plane’s sole occupant in the crash.

“Like most Alaskans, we were saddened to wake up to the news of the death of Eugene ‘Buzzy’ Peltola, Jr.,” Alaska’s Catholic bishops, Anchorage-Juneau Archbishop Andrew E. Bellisario, Fairbanks Bishop-designate Steven Maekawa and Archbishop Emeritus Roger L. Schwietz, said in a joint statement, honoring Eugene Peltola Jr.’s Catholic faith, public service record and leadership in Alaska Native communities.

“Buzzy was a loving husband and father to the couple’s large family and devout in his Catholic faith,” their statement said. “He believed in public service and supporting community. He was an elite provider and always shared his harvest of fish or game, with those in need, no matter where he was. Elders in Alaskan villages and remote communities worldwide benefited from his philosophy of sharing and taking care of others. Our prayers go out to Representative Peltola, their children, and extended family during this time of loss and grieving.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a social media post that “I am shocked, saddened and truly beyond words to express my grief at the loss of Gene Peltola Jr.”

“Anyone who met Buzzy felt his warmth, generosity and charm,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It was easy to see why so many Alaskans called him a friend, and how he was so loved by his family.”

In a statement offering his condolences, President Joe Biden acknowledged the tragedy’s impact on the Peltola family. He noted some occasions he had spent with the now-widowed congresswoman or members of her family, saying, “Spend even a minute with Mary and you’ll feel the love she has for her state and its people, and most of all, the love she has for her husband and their seven children.”

“Buzzy was a devoted public servant and in the tributes coming from all over the state today, he is being remembered as a friend to all,” Biden said. “But we know he was, first and always, the adored and devoted husband and father to a family now in pain.”

Biden, a Catholic who lost his first wife and firstborn child in a 1972 car crash, said he also spoke with Rep. Mary Peltola in “that world shattered in shock and sadness,” assuring her and the family of their prayers.

“To the family — such a loss is cruel and unfair, and the first hours, days, and weeks will be the hardest. But we hope you remember that he will always be with you,” Biden said. “And we pray the day will come when his memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes. It will take time, but that day will come.”

Rep. Mary Peltola won a special election for Alaska’s lone House seat last year following the death of longtime Rep. Don Young, a Republican, earlier in 2022. She vowed bipartisanship in some of her earliest remarks as a member of the House. Peltola’s victory in the special election was notable, as her predecessor held the seat for nearly 50 years as a Republican and her victory was something of a test case for Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system. She was later elected to a full two-year term in the general election last year.

Peltola, an Orthodox Christian, is also the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.