Joe Illing, 1943-2023

A life searching for adventure


Joseph R. Illing, 80, of Olympia, passed away peacefully at home on August 5, 2023. Joe was a man of many talents, interests and passions. Depending on how one met him, one would recall him as an entrepreneur, journalist, golfer, lyricist, songwriter, nature lover, photographer or friend. If asked, he might prefer you remember him for his poetry, of which he published several books.  

Born April 4, 1943, in Chicago, his family moved to Vallejo, California when he was a young boy. Along the way to graduating from Vallejo Senior High School in 1961 he experienced the first of many adventures and brushes with fame, including meeting the baseball great Joe DiMaggio with his Little League Baseball team; hanging out in the San Francisco beat scene with R.C. Gorman, a renowned Navajo artist, and briefly running away to Los Angeles with a buddy at age 16. He chronicled the latter event in “Lost in LaLaLand: Confessions of a Runaway Wannabe Beatnik in 1960 LA” published earlier this year. 

His first brush with the world of publishing were during his teenage years. His first job was selling subscriptions to the San Francisco Examiner. At age 15 he became the paper’s top salesman. Years later he wrote about this in an article titled “How to Sell a Newspaper Subscription to a Blind Man,” one of dozens of autobiographical essays on his website at

Joe entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1961, “harboring vague dreams of becoming a beat poet.” 1961 was a year in which the United States was conscripting hundreds of thousands of young men for service in Vietnam. To avoid being drafted and sent there, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve for three years rather than the required two years. He served most of it in an Army Signal Corps detachment in Koblenz, Germany, which he chronicled in his soon-to-be published book, “How I Won the Cold War: Pride, Honor and Outsmarting ‘Em.” 

“Following several misbegotten get-rich-quick schemes” (again, his words), he returned to Cal Berkeley where he obtained a B.A. in English during the height of the anti-war movement. 

After college, Canada intrigued him. He wrote to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which led to a single meeting at the consulate in San Francisco. Unlike many Americans who emigrated there in those years, Joe arrived in Vancouver, BC, as a landed immigrant in 1970. 

Those years in Canada were his second newspaper years, starting in advertising for The Burnaby Mirror, which hadn’t printed a single issue yet. Within a year he owned half of the newspaper.     

He returned to the U.S. in 1975 and made Olympia his home, where he began a career in commercial real estate, helped establish the Government Building Owners & Lessors Association, and pursued a number of civic activities such as serving on Washington’s Centennial Commission in the 1980s, running unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1988, and participating in Olympia Rotary.

His love of photography led him to be the “chief snapper” (photographer) at Saint Martin’s University Abbey. His love of the natural environment led to a research project on Northwest native plants in his backyard located on the sunrise side of the Black Hills/McLane Creek. He took countless photos of wildlife and plants. As he often commented, “I see beauty in everything.” 

In his 1999 book, “Olympia: A Downtown Walk,” he noted three similarities between his original hometown and his adopted city. He wrote, “It lies by a river that feeds the Pacific, it’s over-shadowed by a dominant neighbor, and, since Joe Wohleb’s arrival in 1911, [Vallejo] served as Olympia’s architectural archetype.” Joe called Olympia “a perfect place to live.” 

Joe loved writing – his poems, songs, anecdotes about his remarkable life and about the history of Thurston County. He met nearly every Wednesday with his “writers’ group,” comprised of his friends Ken Balsley, Dave Nicandri and Dick Pust who shared in these passions. 

He is survived by his beloved spouse, Kirstan Arestad; children Joey Illing (Paulina), Chris Illing (Beth Ann), Katie Illing (Jeremy Flack) and Tova Alexandra (Kevin Cline). His grandchildren include Jacob, Olympia, Luke and George. He felt privileged to be the American father of Semin Lee, who came to him and Kirstan as a Korean exchange student at St. Martin’s University.

He is also survived by his sister, Martha (Roye) Rodriguez, of Vallejo, California, and predeceased by his parents, Joseph M. Illing and Julia L. Illing; and, he’d likely mention if he were here, his close friend Ken Balsley. 

A Celebration of Life will be held locally on Friday, October 6, 2023 at 2 PM. If you would like to attend, RSVP to by September 20 to receive additional details.