A plain-spoken Alaskan who started out 76 years ago in Kilgore, Texas as one of four boys raised by a single mom, is the newest member of the Alaska House of Representatives.
It’s a classic “only in Alaska” life story that began in a small town in East Texas, where Mel Gillis grew up hunting rabbits and squirrel, and where he left to seek his fortune in Alaska.
Gillis was sworn in by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon this afternoon after the Republican caucus met and approved him unanimously.
His rise to the House of Representatives occurred after a series of unforeseen events: Sen. Chris Birch died quite suddenly this summer, and Rep. Josh Revak moved to the Senate to represent Senate Seat M, opening up the District 25 seat.
Gillis, who is a hunting guide by trade, was on an elk hunt in Idaho when he decided to throw his name in the ring for consideration. He had to hustle into the nearest town and find a fax machine, write up his resume, and get everything back to the District 25 Republican Party officers before the deadline. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room but he made the deadline.
He made it past the interview with his District, and was one of three interviewed by Gov. Michael Dunleavy, who forwarded his name to the Republicans in the House of Representatives. And yes, he had to come back from a hunting trip for that interview with the governor. Afterwards, he headed right back to his hunt.
Gillis has had little political experience in his long and storied life, except for the effort he put into getting Revak elected to the District 25 seat. That, and he donated to the campaign of Gov. Jay Hammond and Congressman Don Young. But other than that, he learned about how campaigns are won by wearing out his own boots for Revak.
And that was a prodigious effort, as it turned out. Gillis said he “walked the heck out of the district,” telling people why Revak was the right choice. It was a primary, and Revak was challenging Rep. Charisse Millett. Gillis thought it was time for a change.
Revak has thought of Gillis almost like family. The two met when Revak, who does a lot of volunteer work for wounded veterans, asked Gillis if he’d consider taking some wounded warriors out to his lodge at Sandy River for some fishing. Gillis made it happen. He says he has a hard time turning down a veteran.
“If a wounded warrior needs something, I’m all in,” he said. The two men formed a bond.
Gillis came to Alaska after dropping out of college in the mid 1960s. He found a job as a carpenter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, rebuilding the school in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, which had been destroyed by a tsunami that resulted from the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
He joined the National Guard, and worked on platforms in Cook Inlet for a few years, before settling on construction — working concrete in the summers and being a hunting and fishing guide in the shoulder seasons. It’s a combination of work that supported him, his wife and son, until he retired out of Local 867 in the mid-80s and has just been guiding since then — moose, caribou, sheep, deer, and bear.
Gillis, who has retained his charming Texas drawl, has spent the last 50 years as an Alaskan, has been married to his wife Anne for nearly as long, and is the father of a grown son. He’s lived in the district for 30 years.
Now, however, it’s a new phase of life, a new landscape to learn. Instead of retirement, he’ll be heading to Juneau in January and learning the ropes of lawmaking, the protocols and how legislation is really made.
His friends describe Gillis as the kind of guy who can roll up his sleeves, and sit down with anyone to solve a problem. He’s a practical kind of person, they say, who will negotiate the political scene well.
So it’s no wonder that when asked what his favorite book is, he didn’t hesitate: It’s the one written by his nephew, Dr. John Gillis: “Powerhouse: 13 Teamwork Tactics that Build Excellence and Unrivaled Success,” which was published just this year. He’s hoping to use lessons from that book as he joins the 39 other House members who are sent to Juneau to fight for what they believe is best for their district.
“I am honored to have been selected to work on behalf of the wonderful people of District 25. We have a lot of complex issues to cover this year. I am looking forward to meeting the remainder of my colleagues, hearing from my friends and neighbors about the issues that matter most to them, and preparing for the upcoming legislative session,” Gillis said in a statement.