Tollefson, Thor Carl (1901-1982)

  • By Hans Zeiger
  • Posted 3/11/2022
  • Essay 22412

Thor Tollefson was born in Perley, Minnesota, in 1901. He was 11 when his family moved to Tacoma, and he spent most of his adult life devoted to the public affairs of Tacoma and the state of Washington. He served as Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney from 1938 to 1946, represented Tacoma in the United States Congress from 1947 to 1965, and was director of the Washington State Department of Fisheries from 1965 to 1975. Tollefson was "a gentleman of the old school, a man dedicated to fish and ships, the law and public service, a man who never lost his poise or self-assurance," wrote the Tacoma News Tribune upon his death in 1982 ("Thor Tollefson -- An Inspiration"). 

Norwegian Heritage

Born in Perley, Minnesota, on May 2, 1901, Thor Carl Tollefson was one of seven children of Norwegian-born Christian Tollefson and Bergeta Jacobson Tollefson. Bergeta was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had homesteaded near Perley. The family moved to Tacoma in 1911 in the hope of improved health for Christian, who died in 1915. Thor Tollefson later said that the family was left "destitute" (Burg, 1). Thor dropped out of school and went to work in Tacoma lumber mills to provide for his family. It wasn't until 1922, when Tollefson was in his early 20s, that he resumed studies at Lincoln High School while continuing to work in a mill at night.

In 1923, he held a grade average of 97.2, reportedly the highest in Lincoln High School history at the time. Upon graduation in 1924, his mother insisted that he get a college education, and he enrolled at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. After earning his bachelor's degree, he continued on to legal studies at the UW Law School.

He married Helen O'Connor, a fellow graduate of Lincoln High School and the UW. Helen died in April 1934, just 28 years old. Tollefson later married Eva Keuss. They had three daughters: Rosemary, Karley, and Janie. The family was active in the Central Lutheran Church, where Tollefson served on the board of trustees and spent 16 years as the superintendent of the Sunday School. He would remain active in the church for half a century. He was also a 32nd-degree Mason.

Into the Political Arena

Tollefson was highly involved in the Republican Party in Pierce County during the Depression and World War II. In 1938, hoping to boost his name recognition as a young attorney, he threw his name into the contest for Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, challenging incumbent Democrat Harry H. Johnston. Knowing that Pierce County leaned heavily Democratic, Tollefson recalled, "I did not expect to win at all, but I thought I'd get a lot of free publicity. The people of Tacoma would know who the candidates were and they'd know there was a lawyer in town by the name of Tollefson. And I ran, and lo and behold, nobody was more surprised in town when November rolled around and I'd won the Prosecuting Attorney's position" (Sundberg, 14). Pierce County Sheriff John Bjorklund, a Democrat who had feuded with the sitting prosecutor, threw his support behind Tollefson just days before the election.

Perhaps the highest-profile case that Tollefson prosecuted during his tenure was that of Roy Jacobs, who was charged and convicted in 1942 for the 1935 killing of Puyallup Police Chief Frank Chadwick and Patrolman Harry Storem; Jacobs was executed in 1943. In his 1942 campaign for reelection, Tollefson cited a strong record of convictions amid the highest volume of criminal prosecutions in county history.  

Term-limited after eight years as county prosecutor, Tollefson entered the sixth-district race for Congress in 1946 against five-term incumbent Democrat John Coffee. He recalled that "nobody wanted me to run," but that Coffee was vulnerable because of positions he had taken (Bellingham Herald). Tollefson was critical of Coffee's voting record on labor issues, and labor unions enthusiastically backed Tollefson. Moreover, Tollefson alleged that Coffee had missed too many floor votes. Tollefson won by 8,000 votes. Tollefson's sixth Congressional district included Pierce County and south King County. After redistricting in 1959, King County was taken out of the district, and Kitsap County was added.   

Tollefson was impressed by the U.S. House of Representatives. "You can't describe experience as a Congressman!" he said later in life. "It was a real thrill to a farm boy" (Bellingham Herald, 1). In one of his first key votes in 1947, Tollefson showed his support for labor unions when he voted no on the famous Taft-Hartley labor bill.

An Assist from 'Maggie'

Following a steep reduction in the number of House committees, relatively few committee posts were available to freshmen respresentatives such as Tollefson. But with the aid of Washington Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, Tollefson won an assignment to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. He quickly rose to become the ranking Republican on the committee. Later, he chaired the committee. Most of his major Congressional work occurred in maritime and fisheries policy. Of the two subjects encompassed on his committee, he said, "Maritime was more important to me because this had a national defense aspect" (Burg, 70). Under his chairmanship, Congress authorized a $400 million ship construction and repair initiative, the largest such peacetime program in U.S. history. Tollefson and Magnuson also secured federal funding that allowed the Port of Tacoma to purchase 3,000 acres of tideflats for industrial development.

Tollefson was aware of the complexity of fish passage on the Columbia River. On one hand, he was a supporter of public power generated by the dams. On the other, he was troubled by the consequences of the dams for fish. He described his position as "pro-fish and pro-power too" and insisted on fish-passage measures or other mitigation as a condition of permitting new dams (Burg, 74).

Tollefson also pushed for public facility ownership in Mount Rainier National Park, proposing legislation that would allow the National Park Service to purchase park facilities owned by Rainier National Park Company, which had struggled to maintain profitability during the park's 60-day season. Public ownership would allow for expansion of park facilities, proponents of Tollefson's bill said. The bill passed in 1950.    

Politically moderate, Tollefson's agenda aligned with that of President Dwight Eisenhower. Tollefson had first met Eisenhower when Eisenhower was stationed at Fort Lewis before World War II. In advance of the 1952 election, Tollefson joined with 16 other congressional Republicans -- including Jacob Javits of New York, James Fulton of Pennsylvania, Usher Burdick of North Dakota, and John Davis Lodge of Connecticut -- in signing a letter to Eisenhower asking him to seek the presidency. That same year, Tollefson was the Pierce County chairman for Governor Arthur Langlie's reelection campaign. 

In 1953, following the death of U.S. Federal District Judge Charles Leavy the previous September, Tollefson applied to fill the federal vacancy. Ultimately, Eisenhower appointed Tollefson's fellow Tacoma attorney George Boldt to the judicial post.

Thor and Eva Tollefson took an active role in Washington, D.C.'s social life. Eva was active in the Congressional Club. An accomplished floral decorator, she became known for her floral arrangements at Washington events. She once decorated President Eisenhower's table for a Congressional Club dinner.

Gerald Ford and "Tolly"

Tollefson was athletically inclined and played on the congressional baseball team. During a "spring training" excursion to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1953, he collided head-to-head with Rep. Sam Friedel of Maryland while each tried to catch a fly ball. The impact knocked Friedel unconscious, sending him to the hospital with two missing teeth and a cut lip that needed stitching. Tollefson was apparently unharmed. "Thor Tollefson Has Hard Head; Proves It," was the headline in the Tacoma News Tribune.

The first baseman on Tollefson's team was a young Michigan congressman named Gerald R. Ford. The two became good friends. "Jerry was a good athlete," Tollefson said years later, when Ford was in the White House. "I remember once I threw him a fast one right into his hands. He dropped the damn thing. When I yelled at him, he just smiled and said, 'Hell, that's the first time you ever threw it right at me and I'm not used to that'" (Bellingham Herald, 7). Tollefson referred to Ford as "Cannonball." When Ford visited Lacey in May 1974, he went on at length about the friend he called "Tolly."

In a 1954 speech on the House floor, Congressman Martin Dies, a Democrat from Texas, described Tollefson as "efficient, fair, and sincere" (Tacoma News Tribune, 8).

Tollefson explored a campaign for governor in 1956 and announced his candidacy before deciding instead to run for reelection to his congressional seat. He would win a total of nine terms, serving in Washington, D.C., from 1946 to 1964. He kept a busy speaking schedule on his trips home to his district and regularly supported community events, such as an annual smorgasbord that he sponsored for members of the Tacoma Eagles Aerie 3. In the early 1960s, Tollefson and King County Congressman Tom Pelly held a regular Sunday morning broadcast called "Congressional Questionnaire" on Seattle's KIRO Television.

Tollefson could be blunt. Once, speaking to a convention of pen and pencil manufacturers, he shared his honest feedback about the state of writing instruments: "What is wrong is the ... pile of unusable garbage in every desk drawer in America," he declared (Chilliocothe Gazette). He floated unconventional ideas, as when he proposed that the U.S. declare sovereignty over 2 million square miles of Antarctica in order to preserve access to its oil and mineral reserves.

Emily Walker, a staff member to Tollefson who also wrote a long-running political column in the Tacoma News Tribune, said that Tollefson taught staff not to worry about things. "Don't panic," she quoted her boss. "Wait it out!" ("Emily Keeps Cool ..."). Despite his political moderation, Tollefson was caught up in the Democratic political wave of 1964 and was defeated by Democrat Floyd Hicks (1915-1992). As he later reflected, "I like to think I'm a team player, and I want to go all out for the team ... I went for Goldwater because he was the Republican candidate. And that didn't help me in Pierce County" (Burg, 48).

Directing Washington's Fisheries

After his defeat, Tollefson sought an appointment to the Civil Aeronautics Board, but after Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson opposed his appointment on political grounds, Tollefson returned home to Washington state. Tollefson was happy to be home, and besides, he and Eva "were tired of living in the bustling D.C. conditions," he said (Burg, 80).

Tollefson turned his attention to state government. Governor Daniel J. Evans, newly elected in 1964, tapped Tollefson to serve as state Fisheries Department director. Amid worries that the Japanese fishing industry was interfering with Pacific Northwest salmon runs, Tollefson pledged he would work to put a stop to the situation. "Since trouble is developing in the international field, we could get no better appointee to the position than Thor," said Evans ("Thor Tollefson Starts New Job"). Tollefson told a Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce audience that the Fisheries Department's role was "to conserve and preserve this valuable resource [fish] and to increase the product to meet the increasing demands of an ever growing population" (Port Angeles Evening News).  

Tollefson closed the Columbia River to sports fishing in the summer of 1966, citing low salmon runs. He drew criticism that he was favoring gillnetters. After an agreement with Oregon to extend the 1968 Columbia River commercial fishing season, the Spokane County Sportsmen's Association called on Evans to fire Tollefson. Reflecting on the many fishing controversies during his time as director, Tollefson concluded, "When you're regulating fishing you can't hope to satisfy every group. If you do something that's satisfactory to one group, it isn't to another. And there's no way that you can satisfy both sports and commercial fishermen" ("Tollefson to Retire -- Almost").

Tollefson faced criticism from influential Democratic State Senator R. R. "Bob" Greive over his handling of state surplus fish sales and donations, while he drew the scorn of political columnist Adele Ferguson for his position that Native American tribes were entitled to one third of harvestable salmon. Tollefson "may prove to have been the costliest director ever, as far as sports fishermen are concerned," wrote Ferguson (Ferguson, 6).

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt (who Eisenhower had appointed to the federal judiciary over Tollefson more than two decades earlier) issued his famous ruling on the matter of Native American fishing rights, declaring that tribal members were entitled to more than half of the salmon and steelhead harvest based on the provisions of territorial treaties. "We thought all along that Indians have special rights, but we argue with the allocation percentage and multiple management of the resource," Tollefson said (Bellingham Herald, 7). The state appealed the Boldt decision. If the ruling were to stand, wrote Tollefson, "then nothing short of a most costly reorganization of Washington's Fisheries Department and its fisheries laws can restore order and equity to salmon management in this state" (Tollefson, 13).  

Not long after the Boldt decision, Tollefson told Evans that he wanted to retire, but Evans asked him to stay on until early 1975. "I would have been delighted to have kept him on the job," Evans told the media when he announced that Donald Moos would take over as Fisheries director in March 1975 (Gibbs, 1). By then, Tollefson had served as Fisheries director longer than anyone in state history, and he had served longer than any other department director in the Evans administration. But Tollefson wasn't finished with public service. At age 74, he took a part-time job as a special assistant to Evans for international fisheries negotiations, and he continued to serve as one of three U.S. representatives to the International Pacific Salmon Commission.

"A Gentleman of the Old School"

For many years after their return from Washington, D.C., Eva Tollefson kept busy hosting parties and receptions in their home on American Lake in Lakewood. When Thor Tollefson died on December 30, 1982, at 81 years of age, The News Tribune editorial board called him "a gentleman of the old school, a man dedicated to fish and ships, the law and public service, a man who never lost his poise or self-assurance" ("Thor Tollefson -- An Inspiration").

Other members of the Tollefson family held public offices in Tacoma and Pierce County for many years. Thor Tollefson's brother Harold Tollefson (1908-1985) served as mayor of Tacoma from 1954-1956 and from 1962-1967. Another brother, Erling Tollefson (1913-1986), served as a Tacoma Municipal Court judge. In the following generation, his nephew Rudy Tollefson was a Pierce County Superior Court judge from 1979-2000, and Harold Tollefson's son Brian Tollefson (1951-present) was a Pierce County Superior Court judge from 1989-2016.


Maclyn Burg interviews with Thor Tollefson, April 24, 1972, Olympia, transcripts in possession of Eisenhower Presidential Library; Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); C. Mark Smith, Raising Cain: The Life and Politics of Senator Harry P. Cain (Bothell: Book Publishers Network, 2011), 135; Gerda Sundberg and Edward Sundberg interview with Thor Tollefson, May 27, 1976, recorded for Sundberg Nordic Oral History Collection, Scandinavian Archives Project, transcript in possession of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections; "Tollefson, Thor Carl," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, accessed Oct. 20, 2021 (; "Case in Point," Chillacothe Gazette, March 12, 1962, p. 6; Adele Ferguson, "Mismanagement of fisheries," The Daily Chronicle, June 12, 1974, p. 6; "Tollefson Joins Ranks of Retired After Long Career," Bellingham Herald, March 3, 1975, p. 7; Thor C. Tollefson, "The State's Position: Fish Allocation Should be Fair," Bellingham Herald, February 2, 1975, p. 13; "State Working to Preserve Fisheries," Port Angeles Evening News, March 16, 1966, p. 1; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ex-convict Roy W. Jacobs kills Puyallup Police Chief Frank Chadwick and Patrolman Harry Storem on July 15, 1935" (by Daryl C. McClary) and "President Kennedy speaks to a capacity crowd at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium on September 27, 1963" (by Alan J. Stein),; Ashley Holden, "Prize Plum Dangles in Tacoma," Spokane Spokesman-Review, April 16, 1953, p. 4; Dale Ivie, "Fish Rules Protested," letter to the editor, Ibid., August 27, 1966, p. 5; "Sportsmen After Tollefson," Ibid., March 17, 1968, p. 6; "Brian M. Tollefson," Pierce County website, accessed Oct. 20, 2021 (Brian-M-Tollefson (; "Death Claims Mrs. Tollefson, Wife of Deputy," Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 13, 1934, p. 2; "Lincoln Boy is Honor Student," Ibid., November 23, 1923, p. 2; Vern Shomshak, "Greive Accuses Fisheries Chief of 'Cruel Hoax,'" The News Tribune, August 29, 1947, P. D-13; Joe Morin, "Rainier National Park Bill In Race Against Time," Ibid., August 13, 1950, p. A-7; Frank Vaille, "Tollefson Wants U.S. To Take Over Antarctic," Ibid., September 29, 1951, p. 1; Emily Walker, "'Voice' Revelations Startle Emily, Solons," Ibid., February 22, 1953, p. B-1; Emily Walker, "Thor Tollefson Has Hard Head; Proves It," Ibid., April 12, 1953, p. A-4; Emily Walker, "Emily Describes Woes of Taping TV Program," Ibid., May 26, 1963, p. B-1; Emily Walker, "Emily Keeps Cool Even in the Face of Impending Disaster," Ibid., June 30, 1974, p. E-6; "Thor C. Tollefson," Ibid., May 3, 1933, 10; Emily Walker, "Bjorklund Out For Tollefson," Ibid., October 31, 1938, p. 1; Emily Walker, "Thor Tollefson Cites Record as Co. Prosecutor," Ibid., September 3, 1942, p. 7; Emily Walker, "Doctor Should Heal Himself, Coffee Advises," Ibid., October 30, 1946, p. 2; Emily Walker, "Park Bill Introduced," Ibid., February 26, 1950, p. B-4; Emily Walker, "Park Bill To Truman," Ibid., September 14, 1950, p. 1; Emily Walker, "Praise for Thor Tollefson," Ibid., July 30, 1954, p. 8; Emily Walker, "Smorgasborg Set By Thor Tollefson," Ibid., October 16, 1954, p. A-6; Emily Walker, "Tollefson's Announcement," Ibid., October 31, 1955, p. 18; Emily Walker, "Legislature Success Or Not?" Ibid., April 18, 1959, p. 7; Emily Walker, "Demos Form Unit to Effect Thor Defeat," Ibid., January 28, 1964, p. 28; Emily Walker, "Thor Tollefson Starts New Job," Ibid., May 2, 1965, p. D-18; Emily Walker, "Tollefson to Retire -- Almost," Ibid., February 8, 1975, p. A-2; Al Gibbs, "Tollefson to Leave Post; Moos Named Replacement," Ibid., February 7, 1975, p. 1; Al Gibbs, "Longtime Public Servant Thor Tollefson Dead at 81," Ibid., December 31, 1982, p. C-4; Al Gibbs, "Thor Tollefson: An Inspiration," Ibid., December 31, 1982, p. A-10; Al Gibbs, "Eva Tollefson White," Ibid., September 12, 2003, p. B4; Helen Felker, "Firelight and Candlelight," Ibid., December 16, 1973, p. E-2; Thor C. Tollefson for Congress, "Labor Turns to Tollefson," advertisement in the Tacoma News Tribune, October 23, 1946, p. 9.

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