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Bradley Ronald “Brad” Pillow May 13, 1949 - December 10, 2023

Bradley Ronald “Brad” Pillow, a beloved 48-year San Juan Island resident, retired carpenter and a man of multiple skills and enthusiasms, died on December 10 in his island home surrounded by family.

The cause was complications from a catastrophic stroke suffered weeks before after attending a World War II vintage airshow in Houston.

Brad was born May 13, 1949 (“Friday the 13th,” as he liked to point out), in San Diego to Floyd and Ervie Lee (Godwin) Pillow and raised in nearby El Cajon, CA, where he was a 1967 graduate of Granite Hills High School. He then attended San Diego State University intent on becoming an architect, but left college at 19 to help support his mother and younger sister following the untimely death of his father. This proved not be to be a burden as he had already decided upon an outdoor life, applying the building skills he had learned from Floyd.

He apprenticed in several trades, among them carpentry, electrical and plumbing, before moving to San Juan Island in 1975. As with many who opt for a new life here, he first visited the year before during the summer when the days are long, the sun is shining and the waters sparkling. But after a winter living in a cold-water cabin and enduring the “slime line” at the Jackson Beach cannery, he found work as a carpenter, building condominiums at Roche Harbor and homes around the island. This led to similar work in Samoa, and then on Oahu and Kauai. Thus commenced the perpetual sunshine of a seasonal migration between San Juan summers and Hawaiian winters.

It was on Kauai in February 1984 he met his wife, the former Liz Samonas and her six-year-old son, Kris. The seasonal life came to an end in July of that year when the new family decided to reside year-round on San Juan Island. They were married in 1987 on their front lawn by then-District Court Judge John Linde, for whom Liz worked at the time. Kris attended schools on the island and eventually followed Brad into the construction trades, the two, on occasion, working side-by-side.

Brad was in high demand as a carpenter and foreman, specializing in custom and high-end homes for a number of contractors over the years, and finishing with Lowe Construction in 2020. A mathematics wizard, he was well known for resolving architectural and engineering problems in real time on site. He was also notable for his tenacity for finishing a job, no matter the conditions, such as the time it was raining buckets and the crew, of which Kris was a member, was huddled around a heater in the job shack. Brad came through the door, warmed his hands for a minute, and ordered them back to work.

“‘We’ll work until we’re good and wet, and then we’re just going to work wet,’ he said, and that’s what we did,” Kris recalled. 

The work may have been tough at times with nasty weather, challenging architectural plans and the occasional snarky client, but Brad’s inherent kindness and boundless sense of humor lightened the load. He never forgot off-color jokes, which he was ready to share with any of the same inclination, friends and family alike.

Brad’s good nature on the job site was echoed by his interchanges with fellow islanders, or anyone for that matter, according to Kris and Liz. This was especially evident in front of the post office, which was one of Brad’s favorite venues for catching up with friends and acquaintances. “Brad never encountered a stranger,” Liz said.

This was manifest in a host of personal interests and community activities. In 2022, Brad made the cover of Island Recreation’s Summer Program Guide, crossing the finish line in the 8.8 K Island Loop Run, in which he jogged and walked for 42 consecutive years. He never failed to finish, and occasionally medaled for being the fastest in his 70-plus age group.

His hobbies included a passionate interest in World II warplanes, whether it was attending the Reno air races, vintage aircraft shows around the country or flying the radio-controlled aircraft that he would build over the winter and fly in the summer. This was a boyhood hobby he re-embraced in 1986, which included building a “runway” in the open field behind their home, a venue he was happy to share with his “Fly Guy” friends. 

His interest in aviation also unleashed a passion for photography and videography, his equipment progressing from snapshot cameras to single-lens reflex bodies with massive telephoto lenses and high-speed shutter advances. His airshow and air race images were notable, but he did not start winning top prizes for his work until he turned to nature, most especially the eagles and foxes and other wildlife at American Camp. This in turn generated a commitment to wildlife preservation when, after retirement, he worked with San Juan Island National Historical Park to encourage visitors to keep their distance from fox dens on the prairie.  In his brief time as a volunteer, he made a profound impression on the park staff and Superintendent Elexis Fredy.

“In my 20 years of National Park Service experience, never have I met a more knowledgeable and passionate volunteer as Brad,” Fredy said. “I can see him sitting in my office with pages and pages of notes on how to address the many issues he cared about in the park, while dropping bits of sage wisdom and one-liners with a twinkle in his eye. His ideas and vigilance about how to protect wildlife will inform our work in the years ahead, and we aim to make him proud.”

Despite all of this activity on the island, Brad still found time to travel, as he and Liz joined friends on bicycle trips around the USA and Canada, Europe and Central America. And his abounding interest in technology and soaring gasoline prices spurred him in 2008 to introduce the first electric vehicle on San Juan Island: a three-wheeled Zap pickup truck. Compared to a Tesla, the Zap was a modest craft, topping out at 25 mph and requiring a generator in the bed. But Brad pointed out in the Journal of the San Islands that he was saving nearly $100 monthly in gasoline costs.  

Brad is survived by his wife Liz in the family home; a son Kris and “daughter-in-love” Kelly of Friday Harbor; much loved grandsons, Shade (and partner Bailey) and Elliot, also of Friday Harbor; Suki, an Australian shepherd; and too many friends to count on the island and around the world.

A memorial gathering is scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 2 at the San Juan Island Grange, 152 First Street N. in Friday Harbor. In lieu of flowers, donations in Brad’s name may be sent to the Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, PO Box 391, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, or online at https://wolfhollowwildlife.org/lend-a-hand/donations/

Last modified onTuesday, 26 December 2023 20:45