Clem Tillion, PFD founder and former legislator, dies at 96

Tillion died Wedneday, Oct. 13, at Halibut Cove home.

Clem Tillion, a nine-term former southern Kenai Peninsula legislator who helped pass the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, has died. A commercial fisherman and boat captain, Tillion died Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, at his Halibut Cove home surrounded by family.

Tillion’s daughter, Dr. Martha Cotten, said he checked out of South Peninsula Hospital on Tuesday and went home that night. She said her father was adamant about dying at home. Tillion returned one last time to Halibut Cove.

“He hopped in bed, had half a cookie and a few sips of milk, and rode off,” Cotten said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Tillion served as representative for the Kachemak Bay area from 1963-74 and later as senator from 1975-78, ending his legislative career as Senate President from 1979-80. It was as Senate President that he helped then Gov. Jay Hammond put into law a dividend paid to Alaskans from earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

As news of Tillion’s death spread across Alaska and Outside, accolades poured in.

“He was a great friend, a fellow Senate President, co-creator and defender of the Permanent Fund and the Permanent Fund Dividend, and a great Alaskan,” wrote Senate President Peter Micciche in a press release on Wednesday. “Clem served as the fish czar under Governor Hickel and proved to be the scrappiest of ‘fish fighters’ for many decades in defense of Alaska’s fisheries. His unwavering love for our state, his monumental impact on the trajectory of its history, and his commitment to the people of Alaska will keep his memory alive.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement on Wednesday and also ordered flags to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Monday, Oct. 18.

“He embodied the Alaskan spirit through his tireless work as a state legislator, as a commercial fisherman and as a family man,” Dunleavy wrote. “Clem paved the way for the Permanent Fund Dividend and created a pivotal future for Alaska. I enjoyed my many conversations with Clem as we worked through Alaska’s issues together. Our state is great because of men like Clem and he will be missed by many.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, released a statement through her Facebook page on Wednesday.

“I am so sad to learn of the passing of my friend Clem Tillion,” she wrote. “Clem was a true legend in the world of Alaska fisheries policy, a nine-term Alaska State Legislator and just an overall great guy. I’ll miss visiting with Clem at his house in Halibut Cove, talking history and politics. He once told me that the problem with Alaska today is that there are not enough people who want to die here. At first I was taken aback by his comments, but I came to understand that what Clem really meant was that those who deeply, truly love Alaska never leave and will die happy here. I believe Clem was happy. I send my love and deepest condolences to Clem’s family, friends, and all those in Alaska who held him in such high regard. Alaska is a better place because of Clem Tillion.”

Tillion was born July 3, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his legislative history. The only child, Tillion’s father worked as an architect and helped design U.S. Navy facilities during World War II. His mother died when Tillion was 15, Cotten said. When at age 17 Tillion wanted to enlist in the military, his father had to sign the enlistment papers, and did so on the condition that Tillion join the U.S. Navy Civil Battalion, or Seabees. Tillion served from 1940-45, including duty in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

During the war, Tillion contracted malaria. At the time, Public Health officials were cautious about people with malaria living in regions where they could spread the disease through mosquito bites, Cotten said. After the war, with his friend, Slim Tashner, Tillion worked his way across the country to Alaska, where the breed of mosquitoes here can’t spread the malaria protozoan. At first Tillion lived in Fairbanks. The buddies later made their way to Kachemak Bay, with the last stretch hiking the beach. In Kachemak Bay he lived in Homer and Seldovia. Joel Moss gave him his first job as a fisherman, “and that started his fishing career,” Cotten said.

Tillion met his wife of 58 years, Diana Rutzebeck Tillion, in Homer. Cotten said Vera and Sam Pratt introduced them.

“They were invited over there coincidentally a few times,” Cotten said.

Clem and Diana married in 1952, and had three children, Marian, Martha and Vincent. Her dad raised as his own William, Diana’s son by a previous marriage, Cotten said.

Tillion first lived in a little red shack on the isthmus on Ismailof Island. Clem and Diana later bought most of the island west of the isthmus and helped reinvigorate the area into a fishing and artist community known as Halibut Cove.

In the Legislature and after, Tillion served as one of the architects of Alaska fishing policy. He was a past chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and served as “fish czar” under Gov. Wally Hickel. Chairman of Permanent Fund Defenders, with Hammond he helped push through legislation creating the permanent fund dividend program.

In Hammond’s memoir, “Diapering the Devil,” Hammond wrote that at first it appeared legislators didn’t want to move a permanent fund dividend bill out of committee. His response was to tell legislators that if they didn’t, Hammond would call the Legislature into special session the day after it adjourned and strip from the spending bill all the goodies from any district where a committee member didn’t move the bill to the floor.

“My good friend Clem Tillion, who was at the time Senate President, delivered this message with gusto,” Hammond wrote. “In doing so, Clem earned the title of ‘my strong right arm and swift left foot.’ Largely as a consequence of Clem’s efforts, the bill emerged from committee and passed by a substantial margin.”

Though supportive of the dividend, Tillion also was the lone vote against repealing a state income tax in 1980.

“I thought it was absolutely stupid,” he told the Homer News in an interview in January 2020.

Cotten said she recalled Hammond and her dad talking politics at the Tillion home.

“They had one heck of a good time,” she said. “I grew up with the two of them in the living room, usually eating ice cream and peanuts. … The two of them fed off of each other. They had a really quick come back for each other all the time.”

Cotten said she remembers best her father’s bluntness — an honesty tempered by his wit.

“I think I will always remember him for his absolute blunt honesty, which I think is a trait I’ve inherited,” Cotten said. “… It’s not being mean. It’s telling it like it is. He could do that with some humor.”

Cotten said her dad also should be remembered for his generosity. If someone in the cove lost a house in a fire, he’d be there the next day delivering lumber or running heavy equipment. He helped build many of the roads on the island and bought and ran the Stormbird so Halibut Cove would have regular mail service and grocery supplies.

“He did everything to make sure his children were OK, but he did everything to make sure his neighbors were OK,” she said.

Tillion once had a dream that he would die in October of 2012 and even bought a casket. When the day came and he hadn’t died, his friends filled the casket with beer and other adult beverages and held a big party.

“He went out on a fall day as predicted,” Cotten said, but not in 2012. “He must have been dyslexic because it was 2021.”

Tillion died at 10:21 a.m. Wednesday. His family dressed him in his Filson jacket, placed him in that coffin he bought and put his fully charged cellphone in with him — and then sent him text messages.

“He had quite the send off yesterday,” Cotten said. “We all tucked little things in his casket. … There was some fear we would all start getting texts back.”

Tillion was buried on a bluff at the top of Ismailof Island overlooking Kachemak Bay, in a plot next to Diana Tillion.

“Mother is on one side, and my father is on the other side,” Cotten said. “It’s probably a lot noisier now, particularly with his phone going off.”

A celebration of life will be held in 2022, either over the Memorial Day weekend or on Tillion’s birthday in July.

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Clem Tillion attends a celebration of life for Drew Scalzi on Aug. 5, 2005, at the Seafarers Memorial on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Clem Tillion attends a celebration of life for Drew Scalzi on Aug. 5, 2005, at the Seafarers Memorial on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Clem Tillion in an undated photo. (Homer News file photo)

Clem Tillion in an undated photo. (Homer News file photo)

Clem Tillion in an undated photo. (Homer News file photo)

Clem Tillion in an undated photo. (Homer News file photo)