I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in May of 1957, the firstborn to Mansell (Jr.) and Mary Gillham. Mom and dad had been brought up by people who instilled in them the values of God, Family, and Country and they fully understood what it took to make a good, strong, loving family.
I come from generations of the kind of people you would call “salt of the earth.” The kind others admired and strived to be like. They were devout Christian, loyal, honest, and hardworking. These family traits my ancestors passed on would see mom and dad through the good times and the tough times and beyond 50 years of marriage. They are also the cornerstone of the foundation I have built my life upon.
At 19 years of age, my father had already proven his skills as a carpenter and his dependability and trustworthiness. He had earned enough respect that at the age of 19, he was hired as a supervisor on a bridge built in the mountains of Arizona. That’s where he was when he received word I was soon to arrive.
I met my dad for the first time a few days into my short life when he was able to make the long trip home. He had a duty to care for and support his family, and from the first day of his promise to my mother to the last breath he drew, he kept that promise.
Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with family and friends camping, hunting, or fishing. It was a way of life for us. I have no complaints. I loved the lifestyle and feel blessed to have lived a subsistence lifestyle most of my life. We didn’t look at the seasons as spring, summer, fall, and winter. We measured our year as dear season, dove season, duck season, and pheasant season, with as much fishing thrown in as possible. Filling our freezers and pantries with fresh fish, fowl and game ensured we all were fed well. I loved the many hours spent listening to tails of bygone hunts and adventures so tightly woven into my family's history. These are some of the most cherished memories of my life.
In 1963 work dried up in Arizona. In search of work, we packed up and moved to a small rural area in northern California. Dad found work right away, and like before; it wasn’t long before he was promoted to foreman and running the jobs. He was building 30 to 40 houses at a time in housing tracks containing hundreds of homes. There was no shortage of work here. This is where I would live until I graduated high school. We settled into life in the small blue-collar town of Shore Acres. Just about a mile outside our door was the Sacramento River Delta. The marshland and tributaries were filled with an abundance of fish and fowl. I spent every available moment fishing for stripers, catfish, and sturgeon. In the fall, the estuaries would fill with ducks and geese, and we would hunt these fowl at every opportunity.
I lived within walking distance of the schools and the delta. It wasn’t unusual for me to leave for school in the morning and mom wouldn’t see me until it was too dark to see. Every year we would gather with friends and family at the annual dear camp. We would usually hunt the early season around Bentwood which was close to home, and then head into the high sierras above Grass Valley to fill our tags. This was a great place to grow up.
It wasn’t all fun and games. My father made sure I paid attention to my education. I remember a time I failed a spelling test in school. When dad discovered I had been less than diligent in my studies, he ensured I learned how to spell and instilled enough respect in me that I would never fail another test. My father instilled a strong work ethic and taught me how to work by working alongside me—never asking more of me than he was willing to give himself. I started sweeping floors and cleaning up around the construction site at the age of 12. I thought I was getting rich, making $1.25 an hour. I would learn not only the value of money but also many other lessons working on the job site with my dad and his men. I was blessed to learn from some of the finest carpenters and men I have ever known. They were proud to put in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, and their word was their bond. They taught me well.
These men have all passed on but the lessons are still there. Their memory reminds me they would expect nothing but my best. I am so grateful my parents surrounded me with such examples of exemplary men to follow in their footsteps. It has been a large part of making me who I am.
Dad started his own construction company building custom homes primarily in the San Francisco East Bay area. After graduating High School in 1975, I went to work full-time with my father in the family business. From him I learned how to build a house from the ground up. I learned to read plans, estimate projects, put in foundations, septic systems, electrical, plumbing, framing, frame roofs, tile work, sheetrock, and schedule subcontractors. Dad and his men taught me every detail that goes into building a house, from the foundation to the final touches of painting and all phases in between.
In November of 1979, we expanded our company into the foothills above Sacramento and moved to Grass Valley, California. This is where I met a young lady named Pamela Walker. Pamela had recently moved back to Grass Valley from Alaska. She had spent most of her life in the Fairbanks and North Pole area. Her dad had worked on the pipeline as a bush pilot and master mechanic for Bechtel and Alyeska. She shared her stories of growing up in Alaska and their many adventures.
I enjoyed the stories very much, but I did not have any plans to move to Alaska, but plans can change. Pamela and I were married in November of 1980. The economy was slow; interest rates for housing were into the ’20s, so residential building slowed to a screeching halt. Once again, we had to go where the work was. We followed the work to Pheonix, where our sone was born in 1981, and then back to Grass Valley in 1983, where our daughter Leah was born I found work back in our hometown of Shore Acres in 1984. We moved our family of 4 and once again settled in.
Like my father, before me, it wasn’t long before I became a foreman on a large housing track in San Ramon. The 27-mile commute would take me about 30 to 40 minutes. The urban sprawl from the bay area was swallowing up my little town. The rural community I knew was quickly becoming a city. It was difficult to tell where the city ended, and home began. Within a few short years, my commute, which took 30 to 40 minutes, was now taking over an hour each way. If you have ever had to travel in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours every day, you know why road rage is such a big deal.
Crime rates were skyrocketing, and our neighborhood was becoming more dangerous by the day. It became unsafe for the family, and something had to be done.
In May of 1984, I was offered a fishing trip to Alaska in trade for labor to paint a building. As often happens when remodeling a building, the job has unexpected complications, expands, and, as a result, takes longer to finish. Time was running short. To complete the job and keep my word, I had to forgo the fishing trip I was promised as payment. The lodge owner offered to bring me back a few months later to make good on his promise.
I didn’t realize it yet, but my love for Alaska was just beginning. I returned in September to fish for silvers on the Kenai River. It was one of the best times I have ever had. I was lucky enough to catch a rainbow in the neighborhood of 15 pounds, which the guide accidentally dropped back into the river before we could get a picture. All that could be said was, nice release.
That trip sealed the deal. I was in love. During the winter of 1984, I received another phone for an additional trade. This time it was for a couple of weeks’ worth of construction work. I didn’t even have to think about it. I jumped on it, and on that trip, I bought a house in Soldotna and informed my wife that we were moving. Sell the house in California.
In March of 1985, I pulled into Soldotna, Alaska, to begin living the life most people only dream of. My wife and two children followed with our truck, household belongings, and dog in June of 1985. I guided for a lodge for a couple of summers. At the end of the second summer, I started my own successful charter business on the Kenai River and Cook Inlet, which Pamela and I ran for over 30 years. We grew the company to 2 locations, five rental cabins, two riverboats, and a 28’ saltwater boat. We would have as many as ten captains subcontracting charters for us from Seward to Homer.
During the winter months, I worked for VECO for 16 years, starting as a laborer on my first job, not long after quickly moving up to a carpenter, welder, and heavy equipment operator, on multiple jobs around the inlet and in the Beluga gas field. I supervised jobs from small construction jobs to running shutdowns at the LNG plant. I was a superintendent on a $65 million dollar expansion at the Tesoro refinery.
I went on to take a position with ASRC as a heavy equipment/crane operator. I was with them for six years on the Kenai Peninsula and eight years on the north slope. In May 2013, I received a phone call asking if I was interested in a superintendent position with Udelhoven Oilfield Services. My project was to build them a new office/shop complex in North Kenai. This project needed to be completed by December 31st, 2013. We handed the keys over on Christmas day. The job was completed, and I did it without incident. Not even so much as a band-aid. I enjoyed the challenges of the office complex construction project but decided I wanted the freedom and dependability of the regular slope schedule.
I returned to Kuparuk for ASRC as a heavy equipment/crane operator until I was elected to a seat in the Alaska legislature. Pamela and I have been married for 42 years now.
Our two children have grown to adulthood here on the Kenai Peninsula. They both attended KPC and then went on to earn degrees at other universities. Our daughter Leah earned her BSN in Nursing in 2008 and works in the Soldotna Hospital as an ER nurse. She is married and has three children, a stepson, a son, and a daughter. Our son Tony went on to earn a degree in Automotive Engineering. He is married and has two daughters. He is now an operator for Hilcorp on one of the platforms I worked on over 30 years ago. They are both highly respected individuals in the community, and I could not be prouder of the adults my children have become.
Like most Alaskans, I am an avid outdoorsman. My favorite pastime is spending time with my family and friends, enjoying the many wonders Alaska offers. So many that they are too numerous to count. From Alaska’s many rivers to her majestic mountains, we are blessed to live in the greatest state in the greatest country on earth.
We must do everything in our power to protect this Great Land that God has given us, this land called Alaska. With great honor, I serve District 30, now District 7, as the Alaska State House Representative in 32nd Legislative Session from January 2021 to the present.
I have kept my word and worked hard to do the work of the people of this district. I will continue to work just as hard. This position has afforded me many great honors; one of my greatest honors has been giving the invocation on the Alaska House of Representatives floor on five different occasions. This is an honor that has been bestowed on very few individuals