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Diana Tillion

Diana Tillion spoke on April 27, 1996 at the Land's End Resort in Homer, Alaska for a Communities of Memory meeting where people told stories about life in Homer. In this recording, Diana talks about people in the Homer community, the way the town was when she first arrived, what it was like living away from town, and using a boat for transportation.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2012-19-01

Project: Homer Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Apr 27, 1996
Narrator(s): Diana Tillion
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
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Coming to Homer

World War II

Old Homer description

Effect of the war on Homer

Marriage and life in Halibut Cove

Learning about boats

Outboard motors

Husband, Clem, got into politics

Moved to Juneau

Being an artist

Hosting the Prince of Belgium


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DIANA TILLION: A hundred years of endurance.

I think that's appropriate.

I came to Homer with my mother for the summer of 1942.

And we rented a ca -- a small house from Sam and Vega Pratt.

And our neighbors were the Gordons and the Watsons, and I baby-sat the Gordons' children.

You probably don't remember that .

THELMA GORDON: Oh, yes, I do.

DIANA TILLION: My mother had heard about Homer from Walt Christiansen.

He was on the ship when she came to Alaska in 1938.

And so she -- she had lived as a bride in Haines -- had homesteaded in Haines and loved Haines.

And her life's another story, but she felt that Homer sounded like it was much the same as Haines.

And, although we lived in Palmer, we kids went to -- came to Alaska in 1939, and we lived in Palmer.

My stepfather, Ray Steinberger, worked at the Independence Mine.

And when the -- so we played at being farmers, and had a wonderful time.

When the war started, that changed everything.

Because the mines closed and they drew every available man into Anchorage to build Fort Richardson.

And Anchorage was a dreadful place to be, certainly to be young.

There were soldiers, construction workers, air raid warnings. It was a madhouse.

And so my mother said she wanted to investigate Homer.

And my stepfather said, "Homer? You don't know anything about Homer."

And she said, "Well, I do. I talked to Walt Christiansen on the ship."

So, anyway, we went to Homer.

She was a free spirit. And it was wonderful.

Walli's store was the classic place where people gathered to talk about anything, and, of course, at that time, it was the war.

And there was a warmth there.

Unsung heroes, I feel, are Burt and Inga Hansen.

Burt had the taxicab. His little Model-A or Model-T Ford, whichever it was -- a Model-T? A? Model-A?

And Inga started the Homer library and was quietly a very strong figure in the social structure of Homer.

And I believe that her daughter, Tepa Hansen Rogers, is filling her shoes now.

Bunnell's store was -- didn't have that ambience. But it was the only hotel in town.

They had rooms upstairs and in one of those rooms there was a radio station that talked to Adam Litke in Seldovia and to planes coming in.

And I had, at one point, the opportunity to take care of that station for about two weeks for a friend, Ted Duffield.

I don't know if anybody remembers Ted Duffield.

But I met the first Halibut Cove bachelor in that radio station.

His name was Einar Nelson. He came to call Adam Litke to tell him that a man had died in Halibut Cove and that he should notify the magistrate.

And then -- he was a great big, huge man -- and then he cheerfully said, "No big problem. He's frozen."

"So, no hurry. Just letting you know." So that was sort of my cheerful introduction to Halibut Cove.

But when we went there in 1942, the -- while the war was talked about, it wasn't a presence in Homer.

But in 19 -- we moved, then, to Homer in 1943 -- and when we moved there, it was a presence.

The airport was finished. The military planes were landing at the airport to go to Kodiak and out to the Aleutians.

And there were little patches of soldiers. There was a military boat stationed in Seldovia -- I believe they call it a crash boat.

And those fellows would be in Homer sometimes.

And so the war -- the young men who were on leave from the Aleutian Island campaign, had photographs of dead Japanese and Americans in ditches and foxholes.

And so the war had come and landed in Homer.

And so it was like a pall. Even though life seemed to go on as usual.

And it wasn't a time to be young. There was no -- there was an urgency and a -- a pall over -- always there.

So my -- Sam Pratt, for me as an artist -- and I have always been an artist, when I was six years old I colored all of my mother's enlarged photographs.

And I remember I did such a good job.

I mean, I still felt -- I can still feel the sense of incredible pride as I looked at how beautiful they looked.

And when I took them to my mother and said, "Look what I have done. I've done this for you. And aren't they beautiful?"

This expression swept across her face of absolute horror.

But she didn't criticize me. She didn't say anything.

So while I know -- I mean, one side of me was registering that, oh-oh, I did a bad thing, the other side of me could not put down the fact that they were really beautiful.

So it was wonderful for me to meet Sam Pratt, who was a fine artist, and Vega.

And Frank McMichaels, who lived up on the hill, who was also a very fine artist.

And there were -- Homer had a nucleus of people -- and I'm not gonna go on about Homer, because you have the cream of the crop here to tell about it -- but Homer was a wonderful place to come to.

My real life, which has lasted now for 44 years in Halibut Cove, began when I went to Halibut Cove.

And my parents were so appalled that I was going to marry this wild man from Halibut Cove, as Clem told you yesterday, they sent me to California to think about it.

Well, I went, and I thought about it.

And Clem met me in Anchorage and we were married there in the Methodist Church.

Bob Moss took us to Homer, to Halibut Cove, and dropped us off on the beach.

And as we were walking along the beach, there was his boat, up on the grid.

And I said, "Well, when will it float?"

And he said, "In April." It was November the 9th.

So, for a little moment I thought, "Oh, my word, what have I done?"

But when we got to the little house that we had then, the little two-room cabin, with a root cellar -- it had a shed on one side and a root cellar dug into the hill.

He went into the root cellar to get something and came out sputtering with indignation.

The bachelors in Halibut Cove had filled the root cellar with food.

There were a case of apples, oranges, cases of canned goods, things that they told him later they didn't think -- they called him the kid -- they didn't think that he knew what a woman needed.

So they took care of that.

So I knew instantly that I had friends in Halibut Cove, and I did.

And they very soon talked me into being the barber.

And that was a great occasion. They would -- Rosie Rosenblad and Elmer Sundsby (ph) both made home brew, so they would bring a couple of bottles of brew and so hair cutting day was a jolly event.

And I have to say that when we, eventually, went to Juneau for the legislature, they didn't have their hair cut until I got home.

And by then our house was a little bit larger and so there was a great deal of hair on the floor, and a little bit more home brew consumed.

Arthur Hewlett was as appalled as my folks were at my going to Halibut Cove. HEA had just come to Homer.

And so they gave me their light plant for a wedding present so I would have electricity.

A tremendous gift.

And Clem -- Clem was reputed by our friends to gauge exactly how much gas the light plant burned and that he would only put in --

we only used it in the evenings at night -- and he would only put in enough gas for it to burn -- to run long enough until his bedtime.

And when the light plant would sputter and die, he would jump up with great surprise and say "Well, oh well, it's bed time anyway."

And so, his reputation for chicanery was there.

I was humbled, much the same way I was with coloring my mother's photographs, when I didn't know how to row.

I didn't know anything about the water.

I fished with Clem, and it would get rough. I thought it was incredibly rough, and I would say, "Gosh, you know, it's really pretty rough."

And he would look around with this look of surprise, you know, "Oh, yeah, yeah. It's a little choppy all right." He would say.

Well, one time we had the storm that has changed -- I mean nothing ever seemed rough afterwards, so I understood what he meant.

We had to go to -- my folks had come to visit, and he had to take them back to Homer. I was in the boat with him.

The -- I looked at the top of the waves like this.

They were breaking over Gull Island.

And, I mean, it was like every time one of these huge things would be there and of course, they were big, you know, so you went up, it's like climbing a mountain and then going down the other side.

But it would just press my chest -- I just felt like I was gonna, you know, run out of breath.

And so Bob and Carol Moss and Joel and Flora lived in Peterson Bay then. I said, "Well, gosh, you know, why don't you just let me off at Bob and Carol's and I'll wait for you there."

So he said okay. He probably didn't want to argue with me in front of my parents.

But when he came back to get me, I said, "Well, you know, I'll just walk over the hill."

Cause it was just over the hill to Halibut Cove.

He said, "You get in this boat. Don't you let them think you're afraid to go with me."

So I got in the boat.

And Joel Moss said that the mast -- all the rigging disappeared between each swell, they were so big.

Nothing has seemed really rough since.

Uncomfortable, yes. But rough, no.

That was the -- but, so anyway, I had to learn to row.

No one in Halibut Cove used an out -- everyone had outboard motors, but no one used one.

I mean, if you used an outboard motor just in the cove, you were lazy.

So we all rowed. So I had to learn to row, and I was very proud of myself. I just rowed and rowed.

And he went to Dyson's -- Oscar Dyson lived in Halibut Cove then, and they had invited us over for Thanksgiving Dinner.

And we had walked over at low tide to their place on the other end of the cove, and then after dinner was over the tide was in, so we borrowed a skiff and came home.

And the next day, I said, feeling very proud of myself and my new skill, I said, well, I'll take the skiff back.

So, here I am, rowing away.

And I crossed the bar -- and it turned very cold in the night, and there was skim ice on the other side of the cove.

There's a big creek that comes out there.

And I'm rowing through this ice, and it's hard rowing, you know. I was just really pushing, and Elmer Sundsby came out on the porch and he's waving to me.

And I thought he was waving to me to say, you know, good go, good go.

Well, when I got to Dysons, Oscar came down on the beach to meet me, and, you know, he said, "I could see you rowing."

And he's looking at the skiff, and he's looking at the skiff.

And I thought, "Gosh, I wonder what the scoop is." I said, "What are you looking at?"

"Well," he said, "you know when you row through ice , it's kind of hard on a wooden boat."

Well, I almost sawed the bottom of the boat off. So, so much for pride.

Well, and I have to say that I have learned one thing about an ephemeral -- this is an ephemeral rule -- that engines are male.

Now every time, every time that Clem would be gone, which was often, there was the light plant, an outboard motor, or the boat that the kids -- we brought the kids over to Homer to catch the school bus here.

And when he was gone, one of those motors would say, "No, I don't think I'll run today."

And the worst experience that I had with this -- I had gone out to get the boat on the mooring, rowing out, and we didn't have a boat float or -- we had a running line.

And I had rowed out to the mooring and the boat started just fine.

Brought it in to the beach in front of the house -- the tide was too low for the dock.

The kids all came boiling out and came down and jumped in the boat.

I pushed the boat off, and the engine wouldn't start.

And it wouldn't start.

So I pushed the boat back in again, got out, went up, on the radio, and called for Gene -- Gene Lawrence (ph) to come up and pick up the kids to fly them to Homer to go to school.

And after they left, I went down, pushed the boat out and started to tow the boat to the running line.

And, of course, it has a fairly deep draft, so I was walking backward up to about my knees, and I stumbled over something, and down I went.

And the boat came right over the top of me, I could look -- I was looking at the bottom of it.

It -- I didn't -- I don't know, I could hold my breath quite a while then, I think.

Anyway, I got up, dragged the darn thing down to the running line, ran it out, and here came our neighbor, Ray Miller, who said, "Gee, Diana, are you having trouble with the boat?"

He said, "I'll take a look." I said, "If you start that engine, I will kill you."

He just laughed, and started the engine. Oh, dear.

Well, Clem got into politics because of Leo Rhode.

He'd met Earl Hillstrand, of course, when he was doing this and Earl was a representative from Anchorage.

And Leo was our representative.

And in 1962, Leo did not -- didn't announce that he was not going to run again, and we got a message on the radio, our little radio, that, "Congratulations. You're running for office."

And we didn't even own a car.

But we -- I mean, Clem is not easily defeated.

So we bought a car and we drove around the Kenai talking to everyone.

We didn't know -- his opponent was Alan Peterson (ph) from Kenai, a very dear friend of my family and a wonderful man.

And so the campaign was a gentlemen's campaign.

Neither man said anything against the other one, and in the end Clem won by 11 votes.

They had a recount and he won by 32 votes.

The day that the announcement came over the radio of the recount, we were driving to Kenai to attend a Masonic thing at the Masonic hall.

And when we arrived there, Alan Peterson came out to the car and escorted Clem into the hall and announced to the gentlemen there that this is the new representative from the Kenai.

And I have always been infinitely grateful to Alan Peterson for that gentlemanly act.

Because, believe me, when you're in politics, it's not often a pleasant game.

And, so, anyway, there we were, and out life went flip-flop.

We had to move to Juneau.

We moved to Juneau for 18 years.

By then we had the Homer house -- we moved to Homer while the kids went to school. We went to Juneau in January.

We came back to Homer and then we went back to Halibut Cove.

And it was difficult -- the switch was bad enough.

People -- you know, we took a lot of guff for living in Halibut Cove. That was pretty goofy.

And then when we went to Juneau, to be from Halibut Cove was even more goofy.

And I remember -- and my mother would be ashamed of me if she heard me tell this -- but I was at, the first year we were there I was at a reception at the mansion.

And this lady came up to me, she was really spiffy, and said, "well, I -- I understand that you're from Halibut Cove." And I said, "Yes, I am."

And, "Well," she said, "do you have indoor plumbing?"

And I said, "No. I don't." "Well," she said "when you get indoor plumbing, I'll come visit you."

And I said, with as a big a smile as I could muster, "if that's a promise, I will never have indoor plumbing."

So, in time, in time, you know, things change.

And I met Rie Munoz and Dale DeArmond in Juneau. I had a wonderful time with them.

I joined the art world. We, in time, went to St. Lawrence Island twice to paint.

We went to Paris to do a stone lithograph.

We went to London to do a silkscreen print.

Clem, in his fisheries business, has traveled all over the world, and sometimes I went and sometimes I didn't.

But, life is always unexpected.

We had -- we were -- the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce called us and said, "Would you host the Prince of Belgium for the weekend?"

Well, I won't go into how this happened, but, anyway, what could you say? I mean, I said, "Are you sure you realize what you're saying?"

And they said, "Oh, yes, yes, yes." So -- he's a wonderful boy, absolutely wonderful boy.

But, you know, how do you treat a prince?

I mean, is there -- what's the protocol here?

Well, obviously, you treat him just like you treat your own kids.

I think that I'm going to stop talking.

I want to say, though, that my life, my 100 years of endurance has been supported 100 percent by my incredibly wonderful children, and Clem.

And my incredible friends, whose spirit -- I just endured breast cancer, as I'm sure most of you know, so I've been ill for two years.

I'm now a clean machine. I've survived this.

It was very serious. If it had happened 10 years ago, I'd be dead.

So I'm infinitely grateful for that.

But I can tell you, as trite as it might sound, that good vibes and love can make you live.