Passings: Sen. Clem Tillion - Must Read Alaska
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Sunday, October 24, 2021
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Passings: Sen. Clem Tillion

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Sen. Clem Tillion, who was one of the oldest former legislators in Alaska, has died. He was a long-time commercial fisherman, a nine-term Alaska state legislator, serving in both the House and the Senate, and he served as Senate president.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1925, he was a resident of Halibut Cove near Homer, he served on state boards, commissions, including as chair of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. He was 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason, the highest rank.

As a legislator, he was considered one of the founders of the Alaska Permanent Fund; in recent years he was a founder and board member of the Permanent Fund Defenders group, a group of people trying to restore the statutory formula for the Permanent Fund dividend.

His wife, Diana Rutzebeck Tillion, an artist who used octopus ink in her paintings, died of cancer at the couple’s home in Halibut Cove in 2010.

Tillion served in the U.S. Navy from 1940 to 1945 before coming to Alaska. He got into fishing by working as a deckhand.

He helped shape the borough boundaries for the entire state. He specifically shaped the Kenai Peninsula Borough to include the Cook Inlet oil finds, and he carved in Halibut Cove to be part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

In later years he ran a commercial boat shuttling people from Halibut Cove to the Homer Spit. He was 96 when he died, but as late as last year he was still running the boat. He also was a lobbyist during his 90s for fishing interests in the Aleutian Chain.

Tillion was a colorful character who was not shy to share his opinions on politics. Anyone in politics in Alaska, from a city council person to a governor, would gladly take his call and consider it an honor and privilege to listen to Tillion. In May, he penned a letter to the Alaska Legislature about the Permanent Fund and his position on the dividend:

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Happy trails Clem. Glad I got to see you one more time at the post office. You will be missed but not forgotten

  • The last of his kind. They broke the mold after him.

    He will be missed

  • A true legend! They don’t make them like him any more.

  • A true Alaskan, who, I’m sure, was disturbed by many things happening in our (once) great state.
    We complimented each other on our Filson “Alaska tuxedos” as we gassed up at the Texaco near the overlook outside Homer many years ago.
    He will be missed. Right up there with Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond as the real deal.

  • Did you know?…he bought a casket and had it ready, inside his house? He told us that fact as we crossed the bridge and accidentally met up with Clem. He was age 85 when we met him.

    He bought that casket for himself soon after his wife died. He even had a farewell party while he was still alive.

    If you know Clem Tillion better than we do, it’s possible that this story may not be true. But that’s the story he told us that summer evening on the bridge.

    I recommend that you find any literature about Clem Tillion. He was one of the greater and interesting Alaskans.

      • Hey Suzanne, is there a collection of his writings anywhere? I actually still have the last he wrote that you published open!

  • Saw him from time to time in the Capitol. My most memorable time with him was at a “grip ‘n grin” in East Anchorage back in my Democrat days in the ’70s. He and I found ourselves off in a corner in easy chairs with glasses in our hands. I listened to his stories of driving the crash boat off some island in the South Pacific during WWII and fishing this USMC Corsair pilot out of the Pacific who’d had to ditch short of the island. The pilot was Jay Hammond and they became fast friends.

    Somebody told me a story about Clem’s first fishing boat. He’d been fishing on shares but had a chance to buy a boat. He drove from the Kenai to Anchorage to see Elmer Rasmussen to get a loan for the boat. Elmer listened to Clem’s story and gave him a list of names of men on the Kenai that he wanted references from. So Clem made the rugged trip back to Kenai and looked up the men Elmer required.

    Each gave him a reference in a sealed envelope and Clem returned to Anchorage to meet with Elmer. Elmer opened the envelopes and read the references, and then offered Clem the loan for the boat. Clem asked to see the references and Elmer only offered him one; it was from a man of some reputation on the Kenai and it said; “Elmer, the kid catches fish.” If if ain’t true, it ought to be.

    He and I would probably not agree on a lot of political issues today, but we could be civil about it. We need some more like him.

  • Wow, a 33rd degree mason. Thats one thing we need less of, secretive organizations. As a Christian, I am willing to die for my open beliefs. Thats what we have, and its more valuable than all the power and connections in the world.

  • Glad I had the chance to meet Clem and Diana.
    Great folks.

  • Clem was a great guy, and one our treasured old time Alaskans! I was once sailing as an able bodied seaman on the midnight watch on the Alaska State Ferry Tustumena. We had left Kodiak bound for Homer, and there was a note on the bridge with instructions for the standby to call Clem when we were transiting the Barren Islands. The mid watch was usually pretty quiet and we’d often times tell stories to pass the time. Clem was invited up to the bridge and our watch was privileged to hear Clem tell us his story about how he first came to Alaska after contracting malaria during the war in the pacific. He talked about his many years of commercial fishing that he did “to buy shoes for his kids”. He told us about the land he staked in Halibut Cove back in the day that was since then assessed at over a million dollars! He spoke about how when one of his kids reached ten years old he gave them a skiff to fish from. He spoke about how you could come to Alaska, and if you were willing to work, you could stake land, raise a garden, pull halibut and salmon from the waters, and shoot a moose to feed your family! He came to Alaska with a dream and a sparkle in his eye and he worked hard and built quite an impressive enterprise in Halibut Cove and and even ran his own ferry service ! Clem had a good run and lived quite a long and prosperous life. He loved Alaska and showed everyone what a person could do if they put their mind to it and were willing to work to make it happen. He will be missed and remembered but there’s no regrets because Clem lived long and prospered!

  • A view from the other side. Isn’t this one of the fishermen, along with others like Jay Hammond, who enacted the limited entry legislation for fishermen. Obviously, fisheries needed regulation for sustainability; however, issuing permanent, resalable, permits to fishermen was essentially granting franchises on public resources to a privileged few. Why was the law not written so permits reverted back to the state when the holders retired or died? The permits could then be sold at auction to the highest bidders for the benefit of all Alaskans. Fish are a public resource but are reserved for the benefit of those few privileged by a law written and passed by fishermen. Abhorrent. Un-American.

    • Wow Wayne Douglas Coogan, can’t say I disagree with you about Limited Entry but this article is a tribute to a man who has passed.
      Clem was a bigger then life kind of fellow. He survived the War, moved to Alaska, raised a family and got into politics. Was he right on everything? Of course not. I do however appreciate his stand on the Permanent Fund . You see Wayne, taking that money away from the political class was a brilliant move towards LIMITING Government.
      But beyond Clems work in creating the fund he was a member of the greatest generation. Your Father Jack was also. It is sad that we have lost most of these men. Perhaps though by remembering them we can find a path forward?

      • No need to top your expression of insecurity my good friend. You are implying that my point is misdirected. As if it is untrue that a multitude of spineless cowards comment on here with provocative (while often very appropriate) observations while hiding behind fake identity labels. Regardless of the merit of their comments, they lack the courage to present them openly. Not a commendable tactic.
        .
        As to Mr. Tillion, he was undoubtedly a man of immense character from a great generation. That said, as you know, we are all rotten to the core with our sinful nature. While is customary to lionize others when they pass on, it is also reasonable to note our weaknesses. We should avoid the mistake of elevating each other in a manner that would be detestable to our Creator.

        • Wayne, I want to remind you that sometimes when people comment they use anonymity because they desire their message be heard and considered based upon it’s merits and not rejected due to prejudice. Madison, Jay and Hamilton all used “fake” names when they pitched the Federalists Papers…
          Furthermore my comment about your location was based upon Charles Carrol’s example. Signing the Declaration of Independence he included his residence address. A very brave man there.(you aid something about insecurity?)
          The Apostle Paul once said that he rejoiced whenever good was done. No qualification. Clem in my estimation did many good things.
          You know Wayne, as we live and grow we learn and gain wisdom. What Clem was for almost 50 years ago might have been a mistake viewed from our perspective today. Which reminds me of a privileged young University Student, living the high life in Seattle while many of us stayed home working in brutal conditions building the infrastructure that brought prosperity to Alaska. That whippersnapper voted for Carter in 1976. I don’t hold that against him today though because I know he has grown and gained understanding.

  • Rest in Peace my Brother.

  • My experience and memory of Rep. Tillion was when I attended the pre-halibut IFQ public testimonies years ago. Not unlike the Anchorage mask public testimonies, the opinions were varied and expressed sometimes with emotion. It was about the halibut fishermans permit decisions on the table and their chance to add their two cents. Some (myself and my fisherman friend) traveled to Anchorage from fishing communities to participate.

    It was my first exposure to active politics, as I saw Clem reading a newspaper or hands crossed over his chest, head back and sleeping.
    Not my best experience, but lesson learned on ‘already decided, just waiting to this to end’ politician attitudes.

    oh well.

  • Spend 15 minutes with Clem, and he would tell you how “he killed a man (on Guadacanal) before he had kissed a girl” and how he began his science of king crab by invoking “coitus interrupt us” on mating crab off the docks of harbors in the Aleutian Islands. etc. etc.
    His stories were pure, entertaining b.s.; his politics were all over the board, but he was certainly an entertaining, industrious showman.

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