Friends, acquaintances and former colleagues across Alaska were saddened Monday morning when news reached them that former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Don Gilman had died in Phoenix of an apparent heart attack. He was 71.
Gilman served as mayor from 1975 to 1980 and again from 1987 to 1996. Between, he served in the Alaska Senate from 1980 to 1984.
The man many considered to be the borough's senior statesman moved to the southwest only last week, in part because of his wife Nikki's ailing health. His death came as a blow to those who knew him well.
"It's hard to contemplate that he is gone. We've lost a great Alaskan," Sen. Ted Stevens said from Washington on Monday. "I am really sad."
Stevens called his friend of more than 40 years a "grand guy" and a "leading citizen of the peninsula." The two first met in Seward on a fishing trip and the families often shared their dinner tables. Their sons Brad Gilman and Ben Stevens played together. Brad eventually worked on Stevens' staff.
"We called each other 'father' because of our sons," Stevens said.
As each of their political careers lengthened, Stevens came to depend on Gilman as an "absolutely indispensable source" of information about Southcentral Alaska. Gilman simply kept track of everything, Stevens said.
Former borough Mayor Mike Navarre called Gilman an extraordinary person, a close friend, a straight talker and a good steward of public resources who treated the mayor's job as a nonpartisan position, though he was a Republican.
"Don focused more on policy than politics," he said.
When Gilman retired from office in 1996, Navarre, a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives and a Democrat, ran for the open seat. He could count on the former mayor when he needed a different perspective, he said.
"He always gave me sage advice," Navarre said.
During his two stints in the mayor's office, Gilman tackled substantive practical problems like solid waste management and road improvements singularly unglamorous but critically important issues, Navarre noted.
Serving in the House when Gilman was mayor, Navarre credited Gilman with being among the first office holders to recognize the threat of fire posed by the spruce bark beetle infestation around Cooper Landing. That led to the first state appropriations to pay for creating firebreaks.
Gilman successfully guided the borough through various economic ups and downs, Navarre said, and was the kind of person who tended to take direct routes toward solving problems and then stood by his decisions even when it meant taking heat.
"That's just what Don did. You didn't see him falsely taking credit or laying blame when things didn't go right," Navarre said. "He worked to implement good public policies and took responsibility when things went wrong."
Navarre said Gilman left him a borough in great financial shape in 1996. He also left Navarre with a false sense of security.
"He fooled me," Navarre said. "I thought it was an easy job. It wasn't."
Former Sen. Clem Tillion considers himself largely responsible for Gilman's stint in the Alaska Senate in the early 1980s. Tillion personally went in search of his own successor and found him in then Mayor Don Gilman, someone he considered "a pro." It took some hard convincing, Tillion admitted, but when Gilman agreed, Tillion proceeded to provide him with a bit of an advantage.
"I didn't tell anyone I wasn't running again until the filing period was over," Tillion said. "I was very proud to have stepped out of the Senate and to hand it off to him."
Tillion said Gilman was "an honorable man" who would have made "a heck of a good governor. "
Former assembly member Ron Drathman, of Homer, called Gilman an incredibly hard worker who seemed never to forget anything or anyone.
"If he ever met anyone, he remembered them forever," he said.
Drathman said he first met Gilman when he was contemplating running for the assembly.
"I called him up asking how the borough worked. I'd never talked to him before," Drathman said.
Gilman invited Drathman to the central peninsula.
"So I went up there. He spent the entire day telling me how the borough worked. I thought, 'What a forthright guy.'"
"He really shaped the borough and put it on a path to where we have become one of the most recognized boroughs in the state," Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs said. "He provided the backbone of where we are today. We all have lumps in our throats."
Lt. Gov. Loren Leman has known Gilman for many years and was saddened by news of his death.
"I really enjoyed being around him," Leman said. "In all things he did, he did it with diligence and with humor."
In 1986, Gilman helped run former Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski's bid for the governor's mansion, serving as head of her peninsula campaign.
"But our association goes back a long time," she said Monday. "It was kind of a mutual admiration society."
Sturgulewski remarked on Gilman's love of and familiarity with local issues and said he proved instrumental in helping her and others pass difficult legislation concerning local government, including a wholesale rewrite of Title 29, the state law pertaining to operations of municipalities throughout the state. Among other things, the rewrite began the program of state revenue sharing.
But it was his other qualities that impressed her even more, she said.
He was a Republican and a moderate who was "not into partisan politics," she said. "To him, people were far more than labels. There are very few people whom I can put in the statesman category. He had strong opinions, but he was very fair-minded. He knew government was there to serve the people, and he believed in public service. It was a privilege to work with him."
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