Since reading Joe Tilden’s obituary, Peg Flory said she has been trying to remember which of the late city leader’s many activities first brought them together.
“It just seemed like I always knew him from everywhere,” the lawyer and former Rutland County state senator said of Tilden, who died Saturday at the age of 88. “He was a very nice man. I always remember knowing Joe.”
Tilden was a Rutland native, an Mount St. Joseph Academy graduate, a 6-term alderman, a ranking member of the local Democratic Party, a police officer, a driver’s ed teacher and host of a trio of shows on PEG-TV. On top of all that he was active in several local organizations, and Flory particularly remembered his advocacy for the Marble Valley Regional Transit District when he was a member of their board of directors and he was on the Senate Transportation Committee.
“I don’t remember him ever specifically lobbying me,” she said. “We’d run into each other and just start talking about stuff. ... Joe was omnipresent, I guess.”
Tilden only recently ended a 925-episode run of hosting shows on PEG-TV, having helmed “Democrats Today,” “Civically Speaking” and finally “Big Joe’s Journal.”
“He was able to talk to people not just about his part in experiences, but his great knowledge of what was going on,” Mayor David Allaire said.
The first show was launched as part of Tilden’s dedication to the city and county Democratic Party organizations.
“The committee is not terribly, strictly organized,” said state Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D-Rutland County. “He helped wherever he could. ... He certainly afforded an opportunity to discuss positions that the party was taking. He was always very practical about things and saw that there were multiple sides to any issue.”
Tilden was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1998 but failed in his re-election bid in 2000. The loss didn’t keep him down, and he mounted a successful campaign to return to the board in 2001.
“Joe was consistent on what he felt, what he believed in,” said Alderwoman Sharon Davis, who served alongside Tilden on the board. “He was vocal when he needed to be. He could be kind of crusty at times, but it was clear Joe had the best interests of the city and its residents. ... He had strong feelings about issues, but he always worked with you.”
Tilden served 10 years in his second stint on the board and then left after a referendum in which voters approved amending the charter to give aldermen a 10-year term limit. The Legislature ultimately rejected the charter change as violating the Vermont Constitution, but Tilden said he was respecting the will of the voters.
“He was a strong proponent of democracy,” said Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D-Rutland County. “I can’t say he was a strict Democrat, but he was a strong proponent for democracy. ... He was a tough old bird. He was amazing.”
Hooker and Tilden had run side-by-side for Vermont Senate in 1996. She won, he didn’t. Four years later, Tilden would split with the Democratic Party and run against Hooker as an independent. Tilden said he parted ways with his Democrats over civil unions.
“There are certain aspects of the church and Catholicism he held on to, and that probably had a lot to do with his feelings,” Hooker said. “He was really a man of faith. He would sit in the first pew of St. Peter Church at Mass and everyone who went by had to shake hands with him. He was like the mayor of St. Peters.”
However, Tilden found his way back to the Democratic Party for one more unsuccessful Senate bid in 2006.
“I think in his heart of hearts he felt Democrats were the party of the people and he certainly supported that value,” she said.
Allaire said Tilden was the sort of Vermonter who had strong political positions but valued working together to get results over everything else.
“Joe was always, as long as I can remember, a member of the Democratic Party, but he was a conservative member of the Democratic Party and viewed the world in a larger context,” Allaire said. “I think that’s why we got along so well and worked so well together.”
Allaire and Tilden served alongside each other on the Board of Aldermen, and Allaire said they worked together advocating for The Bus.
“He was always looking out for the little guy,” Allaire said. “I think he realized The Bus played an important role in the city, and maybe not everyone realized that.”
On top of being reliable, Allaire said Tilden had a sense of humor that lightened a number of heated discussions in committee meetings through the years.
“That was important, too,” Allaire said. “As important as these issues are, you’ve got to work together.”