Before she divided public opinion and commanded the rapt attention of the national media, Mayor Sarah Palin had a believer in Wes Hamrick.
The recently transplanted Alaskan says he was one of the politician’s earliest supporters. She thanked him at her kickoff for her run for governor. He was among those in her “Red Army,” bused by Palin to the Alaska Capitol for her inauguration. Twice that day, he said, he started huge chants of “Sa-rah.”
Today, Hamrick and his newlywed wife, Wanda, entertain seniors in Douglas County as The Balla-Dears, a nostalgic country and western act, replete with matching hats and name tags on their vests. He’s just a few years removed from performing for thousands of people at Palin’s annual picnics and fundraisers.
Before moving to Douglas County last year, Hamrick, 60, lived for 57 years in Alaska, including time in Big Lake, 24 miles from Wasilla. In Big Lake, he and his former wife raised three children. He ran several snowmobile dealerships and repair shops, and served for a time as head of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association.
His involvement with motorized recreation led him to Palin’s mayoral office the first time, when he met with her regarding the construction of a trail connecting Big Lake and Wasilla.
Palin had caused a stir in 2002 with a bid for Alaska lieutenant governor, Hamrick recalls. He remembers being impressed with her “sharpness” and “total control” right away.
“She’s one of the few people I’m actually in awe of. And I’m not in awe of much — I’m an Alaskan.”
He grew more familiar with Palin and her family when her husband, Todd, and two other business owners purchased the snowmobile shop he was managing, Fisher’s Fuel.
With their children close in age, Hamrick said he would often see Sarah Palin at social functions, including youth sports events. He said whenever he found himself seated near her, he’d lightly pressure her to run again for higher office. Once, at a hockey game, he won a chance to go down on the ice and participate in a contest and tried to give his ticket to Palin, who demurred.
In 2005, Hamrick was operating a snowmobile dealership, Under the Tower Services, in an old gas station at Milepost 47 of the Parks Highway, about three miles from Sarah Palin’s house. He had painted “U-Haul” on the distinctive orange “76” ball outside, from the days when he operated a U-Haul business at the same property.
Hamrick describes himself as a true conservative who shirks party identification. He said he’d been let down before by politicians like former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who Hamrick says started flying around the state in a private jet after winning election. When Murkowksi appointed his daughter, Lisa, to serve in the U.S. Senate, Hamrick said “it stunk to high heaven.”
In about June 2005, he repainted the “76” ball with a slogan urging a popular hometown girl to run for office: “Palin for Gov. ’06.” Local media noticed the message and used images of it in stories about Palin, whose popularity in Alaska had begun to wane by 2005, Hamrick said.
“She was cooling off. She might have jumped in too soon,” he said.
About three months after painting the message encouraging Palin, she called to invite him to a function at her house. He learned when he arrived it was a kickoff for a campaign, not for lieutenant governor, but for governor. Just before making her announcement, she thanked the supporters who gave her the confidence to run, specifically the business owner who painted the “Palin for Gov. ’06” sign she regularly drove past.
“She said, ‘Before I begin I just want to thank one man, Wes Hamrick,’” he said. “And the cameras all swung around and pointed at me.”
The next few months before the November election were filled with campaign events and political organizing.
A musician most of his life, Hamrick wrote and performed several songs about Palin under his previous stage name, The Valley Balladeer. After her election, he was bused to Anchorage along with other Palin supporters.
Hamrick said he wasn’t close with the Palins, but moved in the same circles as them and was thrilled with their success. He said it was shocking to watch a woman he just called “Sarah” shoot to international attention, but he wasn’t entirely surprised when Republican presidential nominee John McCain chose her to be his running mate in 2008.
“McCain had no chance. He needed a wild card, and she was the hottest thing going at the time,” he said.
After a divorce from his first wife, Hamrick reconnected via Facebook with a friend, Wanda, whom he had met at a party 40 years earlier. She lived in Myrtle Point and had just lost her husband of 42 years, Larry.
Hamrick moved to the lower 48, where “you have winter but nothing like in Alaska.” The couple dated for six months before marrying.
Wes Hamrick taught his new wife to sing, added her to the act and changed the spelling of “balladeer” to honor her. The duo can be heard performing classics by Elvis and Patsy Cline regularly at meatloaf Thursdays at the Sutherlin Senior Center, and at the Winston VFW. They will perform at Central Park in Sutherlin this summer.
The couple’s song is “Storms Never Last,” by Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, because both have successfully navigated rough patches to get where they are.
“We’re not trying to get discovered or nothing. We’re just having fun,” said Wanda Hamrick.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.