Len Tillem, 1944–2022
By Chris Smith, courtesy of the Press Democrat
“So, why ah YOU callin’ a LOY-yah?”
The line, delivered with magnified New York Jewish inflection, never got old for Len Tillem, the Sonoma attorney and regional radio personality, or for his faithful listeners.
Tillem for decades coaxed personal stories from people willing to tell all over the radio waves in exchange for a bit of free legal insight or advice. He was popular on Napa Valley’s KVON and on KSRO in Santa Rosa before he hit the big time in 2000 with a move to KGO, then the top dog in Bay Area radio broadcasting.
The small-town lawyer and metropolitan media celebrity died Jan. 13 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 77.
Tillem garnered a huge audience — and also new business for his Sonoma law practice — by welcoming people on the air to seek counsel for dealing with barking dogs, unfaithful partners, vexing landlords or tenants, scheming kids, you name it. It was the host’s personality and the listeners’ amusing, sordid, heartbreaking, perhaps embarrassing stories, more so than the lawyerly advice, that made the Len Tillem show.
With his Queens accent and humorous, down-to-earth delivery, the uber-personable attorney often put callers at ease, sometimes assuring them the problem wasn’t as bad as they perceived. He told one woman, “Mary, Mary, relax. You’re going to end up in San Quentin if you don’t calm down.”
Typically during his show, more listeners were tuned to KGO than to any other radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wasn’t the reception that would be generated by just any opinion-spouting lawyer.
“Len made it fun, he made it entertaining,” said fan and nearly lifelong friend Bob Hoffman. “I think what made him successful in the radio business was he never put on airs, he never pretended to be something he wasn’t.”
To be talking with Tillem, said Hoffman, who lives in Oakland, “was like hearing from a neighbor.”
Though people could call into Tillem’s show with any problem — the more outlandish or salacious the better — his specialty was elder law. His law practice in Sonoma — originally Len Tillem and Associates and now Tillem McNichol & Brown — focuses on estate and long-term care planning, wills, and trusts.
Tillem settled in Sonoma in the mid-1970s. He ran for the city council in 1984 but didn’t win. He married Susan Fegan in the historic town 35 years ago, and they raised their daughters, Freya and Phoebe, there. Tillem was regularly spotted walking about Sonoma with his beloved golden retrievers, the latest of which died only about two weeks ago.
About 30 years ago, Tillem began writing newspaper columns, including one in The Press Democrat, that answered readers’ questions from and about seniors.
In one from 1994, “Sophie” wrote to say she was “a real looker and pretty wild” when she worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, and she wondered if she could publish some tell-all stories to make a few bucks. Tillem responded, “You don’t need a lawyer, you need an agent!”
More recently, Tillem collaborated with law partner Rosamonde “Rosie” McNichol on a weekly column, “The Elder Advocate,” which runs still in the Kenwood Press, Napa Valley Register and a few other papers.
As he tried to help people with problems, it surely helped that Tillem worked through some of his own.
He was upfront about being an alcoholic in recovery. In 2004, at age 59, he vowed to take better care of himself after chest pains led to a hastily arranged coronary bypass surgery. He had two marriages go south before he met Susan.
A confirmed people-person and animated storyteller, Tillem launched his first ask-the-lawyer radio show in 1990 at KVON in Napa Valley. He kept that call-in program when, not long afterward, he expanded to the landmark Santa Rosa AM station, KSRO.
The story goes that in the mid-1990s, KGO program director Jack Swanson perked up upon reading in a ratings report that listenership shot up sharply at KSRO during a noontime program hosted by an attorney. Swanson recalled, “I thought, geez, how boring could that be?”
A bit of research revealed that Tillem wasn’t so much a lawyer as he was what Swanson called “a very interesting person who happens to be a lawyer.”
Tillem got his start on KGO early in 2000 with a three-hour weekend show.
“It was like going from the minors to the majors,” he once said.
Soon, he was on KGO both Saturdays and Sundays. His listenership burgeoned.
KGO in those days had what might have been the strongest and most popular and ideologically diverse lineup of talk-show hosts of any station in the country. Alongside Tillem and headliner Ronn Owens were Ray Taliaferro, Gene Burns, Gil Gross, Bernie Ward, John Rothmann, and Bill Wattenburg.
Technology allowed Tillem to produce his show from a studio at his law firm in Sonoma. It was a team effort: His sister, Susan Tillem, who had preceded him in quitting the East Coast for California, screened the calls. David Brown, who started at Tillem’s firm as a paralegal and with Tillem’s help became an attorney, spoke briefly with each caller and quickly researched legal background that he messaged to Tillem. In the fall of 2006, KGO granted Tillem a 45-minute program each Monday through Friday from noon to 12:45 p.m. He came on right after powerhouse host Owens; the two of them would chat on air at the program break.
Upon learning of Tillem’s death, Owens posted on his Facebook page: “He was a wonderful guy and I loved listening to him on the air … He had a wonderful way of informing his listeners about the law and entertaining them at the same time.”
With his KGO show, Tillem shared stories with many thousands of listeners, exercised his wit, offered legal advice and perspective, and attracted new clients to his law practice in Sonoma. He thrived on the station until “Black Friday.”
On Dec. 2, 2011, the new owner of KGO, Cumulus Media, announced it was switching the station’s programming from news talk to mostly news. It dismissed Tillem and all of the other hosts except Owens.
“I’m in shock,” Tillem told The Press Democrat at the time. But the end of his run at KGO was not the end of his run in broadcasting.
He soon moved his program to KKSF. Early in 2013, at age 68, he made the switch to podcasts.
Tillem’s health was declining when he retired from his law practice late in 2016. He spent time on occasion with one of his greatest fans, who’d rarely listened to him on the radio but regarded him as a superstar even so.
“He’s just an amazing, amazing human being,” said Petaluma’s Ricardo Rico, who is 45, a father of two, and a longtime salesman with Clover Sonoma.
Rico was brought to California from his native Mexico at age 9. At 10 he accompanied a cousin to work as a landscaper and handyman for Tillem.
The lawyer met and was impressed by young Rico. He got the kid into school, where he learned English, and later helped him obtain legal status and a driver’s license.
A proud day for both came in June of 2011, when Rico stood at Oakland’s Paramount Theater and recited his Oath of Allegiance as a naturalized American citizen.
Rico said of the Sonoma lawyer and radio personality, “His impact on my life was incredible. I can’t say enough about Len Tillem.”
In addition to his wife and two daughters, Tillem is survived by his brothers, Jack Tillem and Herb Tillem. He was looking forward to the arrival of his and Susan’s first grandchild this spring. Out of caution amid the continuing pandemic, his family plans for no service.
Editor’s note: This tribute was originally printed in the Jan. 20, 2022, issue of The Press Democrat. The Kenwood Press is grateful to The Press Democrat for allowing us to reprint this tribute to Len Tillem.
The Kenwood Press has proudly published the “Len and Rosie” elder law advice column for many years. Len Tillem’s law partners, Rosie McNichol and David Brown, will continue to write the elder law column for the Kenwood Press.