Legislators from both parties paid tributes Thursday to former Rep. Vic Gilliam of Silverton, who died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive disease that affects the nerves and spinal cord.
Gilliam was 66. He died Wednesday, June 17, about a month before his birthday. He was in the House from 2007 — when he succeeded Mac Sumner, who died of cancer later that year — until his own resignation in 2017. He had just been re-elected, but the effects of ALS — known as Lou Gehrig's disease — were evident since his diagnosis in 2015.
His District 18 seat takes in parts of Clackamas and Marion counties, including parts of Woodburn, Hubbard, Aurora and Mount Angel.
Aurora City Recorder Scott Jorgensen worked with Gilliam during a stint with the House Republican Office in 2013-14.
"Vic was always a true gentleman, statesman and overall class act," Jorgensen said in an online statement. "His example, and his contributions to the state and its people, will never be forgotten."
Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat from Salem, was one of Gilliam's closest friends. Clem said he spent a couple of hours Saturday with Gilliam at the invitation of Gilliam's wife.
"He was a rock until the end," Clem said in a brief interview.
"As he was leaving (in 2017), he admonished the House not to be so vitriolic and not to fall prey to the divisions that are so common right now in this country and in politics. I hope people will use his passing as a way to get back on the path of remembering that we are all supposed to be loving each other and working together."
Clem said Gilliam modeled his public career after that of Mark Hatfield, former Oregon governor and longtime U.S. senator, a Republican for whom Gilliam worked from 1976 until 1982.
Gerry Frank, Hatfield's longtime chief of staff, hired Gilliam a year after Gilliam graduated from college.
"Vic Gilliam embodies the kind of person who brings people together," Frank said at a 2016 dinner honoring Gilliam. "Why? Because he is fun to be around."
Gilliam later became a development officer for Oregon Health & Science University, Willamette University and Mercy Corps. He earned a bachelor's degree from Warner Pacific University, where his father was president, and a master's degree from the University of South Carolina.
Gilliam lost primary bids for the House in 1986 and 1988 before his 2007 appointment.
In addition to his wife, Becky, he is survived by two daughters and a son.
Gilliam began his first term in 2007 as Fred Girod of Stayton was returning to the House after an absence of 14 years. Girod is now the Senate Republican leader.
"Never one to back down from a challenge, Vic had a heart for service and was dedicated to all Oregonians," Girod said. "His famous smile and good-nature earned him friends across the state, and he will be forever missed by me and many others. My heart goes out to his family during this time."
Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, also began her House service back in 2007.
"Whether it was fighting to protect seniors from abuse or trying to convince us to get behind hydrogen fuel technology, Vic always brought his charm and conviction to the table," she said in a statement. "Vic would smile at being remembered as the best-looking and funniest guy in the Legislature.
"Although ALS took away his physical strength, his servant heart and sense of humor never waned over the last five years. We will miss him, and my love goes out to his family in this time of transition."
Praised for courage
When Gilliam received the Oregon Statesman of the Year award in 2016 from the Oregon Business Association, Kotek praised his courage as one of just five Republicans to vote for a 2013 bill authorizing driver cards for undocumented immigrants who cannot prove legal presence in the United States. The bill passed, but voters overturned it in 2014. A different version passed in 2019 and will take effect in 2021.
Gilliam drew a primary challenger in 2014 but won with 59%.
"That is one of those moments when you say that is a statesman," Kotek said back then. "There is a guy who stands up for those folks who need a voice."
Gilliam often was teased about his physical attractiveness. He was a part-time actor, mostly in commercials and training films. He appeared as a minor-league baseball team owner in an episode of "Leverage" filmed in Portland and broadcast in 2010.
Other leaders weighed in:
• Gov. Kate Brown: "Vic will always be remembered as a stand-up state representative in the Oregon Legislature who was well respected on all sides of the political spectrum. He was a fighter who battled ALS. Rep. Gilliam was known to be a true statesman who also brought kindness, levity, and humor to compassionate work. Vic's legacy will live on in the Capitol and throughout Oregon. Dan and I send our love to Vic's wife and their kids during this time."
• Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, a former police chief and mayor who succeeded Gilliam: "We lived in the same town and had the opportunity to speak at many of the same events, him as a state representative and me as mayor. I always admired his sense of humor and his deep commitment to public service. Our community has lost a good friend. My prayers are with his family."
• House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby: "While I never had the opportunity of serving with him, he was known for encouraging both parties to find common ground and work together for all Oregonians and for his legendary sense of humor. He championed protections for the elderly and most vulnerable among us. He left a long shadow and a lasting impact. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this difficult time."
• House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland: "Vic was an expert at using humor to diffuse tense situations, find common ground, and get us all to listen and pay attention to what was important. Underneath his dry wit and impeccable comedic timing, though, was a true pragmatist through and through. Though Vic and I came from different parties, we were joined by our commitment to service and to making Oregon a better place. He loved the people of Oregon and was dedicated to the democratic ideals embodied in the legislature. Vic was truly one of a kind. I extend my deepest condolences to Vic's wife Becky, their three children and all those who loved him."
• Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem: "He and I did not always agree, but he was spectacular when he was giving a speech and could always make people laugh. He had a special sensitivity for the most valuable Oregonians, seniors and children. You could tell that he took the legislative process seriously and felt it was a high honor to be a public servant. He was very well respected to all who knew him, deservedly so. My thoughts are with his family and friends."
NOTE: Adds comments from Gov. Kate Brown, Rep. Rick Lewis, who succeeded Gilliam in the House. Corrects surviving family members.
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