An undertaker once complained to Gov. Jay Hammond about the behavior of Hammond’s friend Sen. Clem Tillion, who had insulted funeral directors in 1975 by comparing morticians to prostitutes.
While debating a bill regulating morticians, he complained that it was “the only profession that is less honorable and more costly than prostitution.”
Hammond did little to soothe the feelings of the aggrieved undertaker.
“You really should not take excessive offense,” Hammond said. “Had Tillion really wished to badmouth morticians he’d have equated you with attorneys, over which he has a real hang-up. But you have no idea in what high regard he holds prostitutes.”
“I told Clem later he better work some on his bedside manner,” Hammond told Anchorage Times reporter Bill White in 1982, “since I’d not always be around to bail him out.”
I thought of this story Wednesday when the news of Tillion’s death spread across Alaska. Tillion and Hammond were friends and among the most important political figures in Alaska in the 1970s and beyond. They helped made crucial decisions and tried to help Alaska adapt to the oil age in an intelligent manner, leaving a record that mixed success and failure.
Politicians and admirers will share many tributes about Tillion’s knowledge of fisheries and his political leadership. The son of a prominent architect, he was stubborn, independent, innovative and never afraid to speak his mind, even if it meant offending the odd undertaker. He was never timid. He was a great man.
Tillion often said that he thought of Hammond, who died in 2005, as an older brother. Only three years separated the two men, who created lives for themselves in Alaska that ran along parallel lines. Hammond was from Troy, New York, Tillion from Long Island.
After World War II, they went searching for something and found it in Alaska. They married the right women, had children, gained friends and made Alaska a better place for those who followed.
Speaking softly was not a habit that either one of these bombastic characters ever developed. They could walk into a room and hold an audience by the force of their unique personalities. Because of the adventures they endured and enjoyed, they had great stories to tell.
That they loved each other was clear from the way they joked about each other.
Hammond banned alcohol from the governor’s mansion during his eight years at the top, but Tillion bragged he had smuggled booze in at times to counteract the deadly dull parties. Tillion claimed he had hidden a bottle of Chivas Regal in an upstairs freezer. For Tillion, it was always one drink, never two.
If you read Hammond’s autobiography, his joy in writing about the man he called “RepTillion” is obvious when he mentions that Tillion cultivated the “image of a simple rustic,” and had “ample arable ground to work with” in playing the role of country bumpkin.
But that act always ended at the point “when some city slicker, smugly assuming he’d outmaneuvered a yokel, had Clem, with a chortling bray, hand the slicker his severed head.”
Hammond was not that far off the mark when he mentioned that the full-throated Tillion roared with the “unmuted bronze bullhorn that passed for his voice.” To be fair, Hammond also had an “unmuted bronze bullhorn that passed for his voice.”
Here is Hammond describing his first glimpse of Tillion on the House floor:
“His shock of red, Woody Woodpecker hair, barely contained by an old derby hat, had the luster and texture of Brillo. In a 1930s belted, Glen-plaid suit of his father’s burnished to an almost metallic patina, he looked like something from ‘Guys and Dolls’ sired by “The Great Gatsby.’ Other witnesses present that morning perhaps remember best his prehensile-toed feet perched atop his desk, flexing in happy unfettered abandon. Clem later explained that only when unshod could he think freely.”
In a 2019 interview, Tillion told an interviewer in Homer that his coffin had been made some years earlier and was in his house at the top of the stairs. “Death is not important,” Tillion said. He raised his left hand and pointed up with his index finger about what was really important. “Did you live?”
Clem Tillion lived.
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