To many Alaskans, and those far beyond in the global world of finance, Bob Gillam was best known as the founder of McKinley Capital Management, who rose to become one of the state’s wealthiest residents.
But the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham spoke this past week to a whole other side of Gillam, who earlier was adopted into the tribe and given the name “Koktuli”, which means “white owl.”
Gillam was born on the banks of the Chena River in Fairbanks on July 7, 1946. He died at sunset in Anchorage on Sept. 12, a day after suffering a stroke at home.
The Curyung Tribal Council honored Gillam days after his death by naming him a Cultural Warrior of the tribe.
“If it weren’t for love we wouldn’t all be here,” said Father Michael Oleksa, of the Orthodox Church in America, in his tribute to Gillam. “His love for the land brought us together.”
“He was a person who fought for things we Natives stand for,” said Robin Samuelsen, a veteran commercial fisherman, chairman of the board of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. and a member chief of the Curyung Tribal Council.
“This is the first time we’ve given the name Cultural Warrior,” added Kim Williams, also a tribal member chief.
Samuelsen, Williams, BBEDC president and chief executive officer Norm Van Vactor were among several hundred people, including Dillingham residents, who traveled to Anchorage on Sept. 23 to pay their respects to Gillam for his kindness and generosity to Alaskans both urban and rural.
“There’d be a Pebble mine in Bristol Bay right now of it weren’t for Bob Gillam,” Samuelsen said. “He was a sleeping giant, organizing (the opposition). He reached out to people all over the world about Pebble. He was comfortable with the president of the United States, but also with village people, without being demanding. He was a unique individual.”
Gillam, with a passion for hunting, fishing, flying, adventure, good red wine and the Alaska way of life, engaged in the controversy still in progress over whether to allow for development of a massive copper, gold and molybdenum mine near the headwaters of Bristol Bay. His passion for protecting habitat for the world largest run of wild sockeye salmon and the people who depend on it as commercial, sport and subsistence harvesters led him to spend millions of dollars opposing the mine, which would be close to his Lake Clark fishing lodge.
“He was pretty passionate in his beliefs,” Williams said. “There wasn’t a shy bone in his body. We need to remember what he stood for. We all have to stand our ground.”
“He always stood up for the underdog and never backed down from a bully,” said Scott Kendall, chief of staff for Gov. Bill Walker, who worked for Gillam for a decade on Pebble issues.
“The Bristol Bay protection movement that Bob helped create has deepened, grown and diversified over the years and is now stronger than ever,” said Tim Bristol, director of the Salmon State Initiative and former director of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program.
This movement is his legacy and we carry on in his honor.”
“He always remembered his roots and his old friends,” said J.L. McCarrey, who delivered the eulogy. McCarrey, a high school classmate of Gillam, is now general counsel for McKinley Capital Management, which serves a global client base from its headquarters in Anchorage. He spoke at length about Gillam’s love of Alaska, concluding “we were and are family.”
A graduate of the Wharton business School at the University of Pennsylvania, Gillam’s interests also included biblical and European history, medical science and space travel, and he traveled the world extensively.
Also among the many mourners at the funeral at the Hotel Captain Cook were his wife, Mary Lou Couch Gillam, his five children and their families; Catherine Stevens, widow of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; Alaska’s First Lady Donna Walker, and former Gov. Bill Sheffield.
Gillam’s five grown children also spoke of their father’s passions, from financial markets to fishing and the Alaska lifestyle. One by one, Robert Arthur Gillam, Vicki Gillam Norris, John Clark Gillam, Mary Roxanne Gillam and Frank Hunter Gillam spoke of special times with their dad and lessons learned.
“He never knew a stranger,” said Vicki. “He collected them and made them his friends … I will always feel his presence here in the land of the midnight sun, the land he loved so well.”
John spoke about his dad awarding dozens of college scholarships to young Alaskans, delivering of free fuel to Native villages round the state, and giving $100 bills to people in need. He wanted to make sure people had food and that kids had Christmas gifts, he said.
Mary related memories of her dad’s prowess with a 44-magnum pistol when a bat got loose in the house, and similar encounter with a squirrel.
“He was loud, and my God, he was full of enthusiasm,” she said. And Hunter, his youngest, spoke of his father’s softer side, his love of the arts.
“He was the only guy I know who always caught the first fish on the first cast,” said Rob. “His father taught him how to win and how to lose with grace and to stay grounded.”
His father also told him that when you see someone in need to help them,” he said. “He invested in eternity by investing in people.”