Remembering Omie Tillett
When news of the death of Omie Tillett emerged on July 5, tributes poured in from big city daily newspapers to local media outlets to tiny fishing and boating blogs.
Everyone had a story to share about the Outer Banks legend. And yet…
“Words don’t describe him. There’s not good enough words that can accurately describe him,” explains Dicki Harris.
After all, how do you describe someone who pioneered the local charter fishing industry? Someone whose mark on the boat building industry remains today? A man who spent his life with such humility and grace for his fellow man?
“When I met Omie Tillett, I was very, very young,” Paul Mann recalls. “My father and mother used to hang out with Omie and (his wife) Patsy, and I remember really paying attention to what he was saying when I was 8, 9 years old: ‘Man, this guy knows what he’s talking about.’ He was a great influence as a human being, an adult figure, someone you could definitely model yourself after.”
The Story of Omie Tillett
The 90-year-old’s story began in south Nags Head, where his father “Sambo” had a small restaurant on the beach that was a gathering spot for his fellow commercial fishermen. (Today, Sam & Omie’s tells the Tillett family story on its menu placards for tourists and locals alike who still flock to the popular spot.) Omie left school after eighth grade to work as a mate on his father’s boat and had his own boat a few years later.
Sambo and his brother Toby, along with Omie and Tony Tillett – 12 years Omie’s junior – would build the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center into the charter fishing giant it is today.
“He fished offshore 65 years,” Tony says. “He was the leader. He taught us all. We all tried to keep up with him fishing and we couldn’t. He gave us something to work for.”
Omie’s skill, determination, and generosity became the stuff of legend as the decades passed. To many, he was known simply as “Sportsman” – the name of his 53-foot boat. When it came to work ethic, Tony recalls some of the best advice he ever received from his older brother:
“Do the best you can, and make sure it’s the damn best you can do,” Tony says. “That always stuck with me.”
Dicki Harris served as a mate for three years under Omie, asking for the job because he wanted to be inspired by the best there was. Omie didn’t just teach, Harris explains, but “made me learn,” with the idea that his apprentice would remember the job a whole lot better by taking the lead and running with it.
Harris would indeed run his own boat for years, and when Omie retired, he asked Harris if he’d buy the Sportsman.
“It’s hard to follow a legend, so I changed the name,” Harris says with a laugh. Today, he still takes out charters on the Fintastic. “It wasn’t fitting. That name belonged to him. They can name their boat that, but they’d never be ‘the Sportsman.’ ”
In addition to the work ethic, Harris also recalls a toughness that kept Omie going.
“One time he fell and caught himself on the dock with both hands. After two weeks he went to the doctor and finally found out he had broken both wrists,” Harris marvels. “At that point there was nothing to do but tough it out. Can you imagine having to steer the boat with both wrists broken?”
A true, skillful, Outer Banks mechanic
Mann, who now crafts custom boats out of his shop in Manns Harbor, says Omie’s mechanical skills often get overlooked when people talk about his fishing and boat building skills. He had a front-row seat to the man’s abilities when he was an occasional mate for Omie. He would watch him tear down and rebuild his own motors. Moreover, he would fix any problem being experienced by any member of the Oregon Inlet fleet.
“He had a mechanical mind that was always going. He never graduated high school or went to college, but his common sense was far beyond a normal person’s,” Mann says. “Nothing was ever broken. It just wasn’t fixed yet. He was like a MacGyver.”
Omie was fond of telling people, “If you have fuel and you have fire, something’s gonna start,” Mann remembers. And one of the most famous cases of that coming true involved not boats but lawnmowers, of all things.
When a hurricane hit Nags Head one year, people put flooded lawnmowers out with the trash. Omie collected them and Mann “watched him do his magic,” including using a drill to get the motors cranking rather than pulling them by hand. He got every one of them running and then gave them away to folks.
“He’d work on everybody’s stuff but his own,” Mann says. “He made sure everybody else had what they needed.”
An Outer Banks boat building expert
Mann also calls Omie an icon of the boat building industry. Harris says Omie crafted his boats by taking the best ideas around at the time and making them better, and Omie is credited with creating the modern look of today’s Carolina Flare. Omie would fish in summer and build boats in winter before he had to stop because of an allergic reaction to the epoxy used in the industry.
“I’ve got boats in Oregon Inlet and Pirates Cove,” Mann says. “I’ve been building 31 years, and when I look at my first boats, Omie was a large influence in the looks and designs.”
More than anything, though, what people remember most about Omie was how great a guy he was. His obituary mentioned his “signature” greeting of “Wooooooo!” as well as his proclivity for handing out “holy ghost hugs.”
Tony marvels how he and his brother worked together side by side for more than 50 years and they “never had a cross word our whole life. That’s one of my best memories.”
Most importantly, a significant memory of Omie Tillett lives on in the traditional morning prayer – the blessing of the Oregon Inlet fleet.
Harris recalls the tradition beginning when he was mating for Omie, but can’t recall what sparked it. Tony says as the sun came up on each fishing day, Omie would exclaim, “ ‘Boys, let’s lay the foundation for another day.’ To say a prayer and give thanks for everything, that was like when you start a house, to build a foundation.”
Omie elected to stop fishing on Sundays at one point in his career. Therefore, a further testament to his religious beliefs.
“He was always preaching the word of God,” Mann recalls. “When he got saved, from then on he was an absolute believer and a winner of souls.”
Not every member of the charter fleet felt the same religious fervor, but everyone could get behind a prayer of thanksgiving for the sun and surf, as well as prayers of safety for all those heading out. Remarkably, the tradition of a morning prayer for the fleet spread from Oregon Inlet to Virginia Beach, Hatteras and Morehead City. It’s a mainstay at major tournaments on the coast as well.
“Once Omie retired, it got to where other people were giving the prayers besides him,” Harris says. “I think that’s what he wanted and it just carried on. I think that’s his legacy.”
After a pause, Harris continued: “He was just such a gentleman. So religious. There’s no doubt he left to sit up there with God. Probably giving the morning prayer up there.”
Or, as Harris’ wife chimes in with a laugh, “No, he’s probably rebuilding the ark.”
The obituary for Omie Tillett credited his “exceptional accomplishments and exemplary service as a citizen in his community” as the driving force behind his receipt in 2009 of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor in North Carolina. Other accolades include being a member of the International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame and being named the 2010 Dare County Living Legend.
Tony says he never really understood people calling a funeral a “celebration of life” – until attending Omie’s service. “It was a celebration,” he recalls. “They were right. He’s better off where he is now.”
Mann was honored to be one of Omie’s pallbearers. He marveled that so many people gathered in one spot, from fishermen to boat builders, old folks to kids, wanting to share how Omie had touched their lives.
“He had a little something for everybody,” Mann says. “We could still be down there right now with people walking up. It was a never-ending flow of people testifying to how Omie had made a difference.”
Those fond remembrances and the prayers that still crackle over the airwaves every morning in tribute to Omie have buoyed his family’s spirits in the weeks following his death.
“I miss him, but he’s not forgotten, every day,” Tony says. “Omie Tillett was a legend.” ♦
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and the yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his life on the Outer Banks.
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.