On Aug. 29, this past Saturday, I attended a memorial/celebration of life for Tom Payton, a well known “jack of all trades,” who had passed on a week earlier. The gathering was more a celebration of family life and fond memories, but still had a flavoring of the family’s faith present tas well.
Tom’s son, Israel Payton, was the main speaker and most of what comes next is taken from his comments. I knew Tom, from my time on the Board of Fisheries and other fisheries related activities I had been involved with over time. Tom was a strong advocate of protecting our wildlife resources while maintaining a reasonable and sustainable use of them for Alaskans.
Tom’s business card for “Payton Films, Alaska” was available to attendees and on the back of it, he had listed himself as a: filmmaker, boatbuilder, screenwriter, political advisor, Alaska Fish and Game advisor, midwife, river pilot/guide, dog team driver, organic gardener, expert marksman, alternative energy proponent, subsistence expert, conservationist, American patriot, log builder, farmer, heavy equipment operator, paralegal and book collector.
On the front of the card, Tom had identified himself as a Professional Alaskan. I can’t think of a better way to encompass all the experiences and knowledge Tom had accumulated during his time here. As Israel stated, while you may chuckle at the list of accomplishments and the title, Tom was all those things plus many more.
Israel listed nine different boats Tom had built over the years and why he had built them. Israel also mentioned that Tom was ready, willing, and able to give political advice to any politician who came within ear’s reach.
As I was getting more involved in fisheries issues after I retired from Fish and Game, the first story I heard about Tom was that he had successfully sued the Board of Fisheries to change a finding they had made concerning salmon subsistence fishing on the Yentna River. To this day, this legal victory against the BOF is the only successful action by an individual that anyone can remember having occurred.
Tom was heavily involved with Fish and Game issues and served for several years as the Mt. Yenlo Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairperson. He felt passionately about these resource issues and I remember hearing him loose “his cool” at a couple of Valley meetings where Fish and Game was invited to explain their salmon management strategies and the results of their actions.
I didn’t know, until this memorial, that Tom had delivered all four of his children. Israel said that Tom’s “favorite thing was being our Pa. He made all of us feel special.” Tom was happiest when the whole family was together under one roof. That’s a special feeling many families never experience.
Israel commented on Tom’s intense blue eyes and his better than perfect vision. Tom was an expert fisherman and Israel always enjoyed their time fishing together. Israel did mention one frustration he had with his father. Quoting Israel, “Pa was so talented at so many things that, quite honestly, it was a bit more than frustrating sometimes. I don’t know how many times I would think to myself how he knows how to do EVERYTHING!”
Tom produced a video on the various styles of fish wheels being used around the state by folks for their subsistence salmon fishing. I ran into Tom one day and he gave me a copy of the video and asked me to look at it and write a comment if I was so inclined. This was after I had become fairly well-established, locally, writing about outdoors stuff for the Frontiersman and other sources.
I watched the video and was impressed at the range of fish wheel styles and Tom’s knowledge and ability to discuss them. The photography, as I recall, was impressive as well. I wrote some comments and sent them over to Tom. I noticed later that he had used a one-sentence quote from me on the back of the DVD and had given me the title of “Alaska Outdoor Writer.” I was tickled than a man of his accomplishments would refer to me that way. I was honored!
I didn’t know Tom all that well. I know Israel better, but I was always impressed with Tom’s knowledge and life experiences. For many of us who migrated north to live in Alaska, I think Tom embodied the lifestyle we all have dreamed about living. In many ways, Tom Payton was a true Alaskan renaissance man. R.I.P.