Josh Tilsen, state commissioner for the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) and a longtime labor mediator, died Tuesday after a sudden illness, a family member said.
Tilsen was 67. Gov. Mark Dayton appointed the St. Paul resident to lead the agency in 2011. He was reappointed in 2015.
Tilsen is survived by his wife, Faith Latimer, and three adult children. A Minnesota native, he grew up in St. Paul, said his first cousin, David Tilsen.
“Our entire administration is deeply mourning today,” Dayton said in a statement. “Commissioner Tilsen was our good friend, an important leader of our team, and a superb public servant. We will greatly miss his talent, expertise and good humor.”
When he named him to his cabinet, Dayton lauded Tilsen’s 30-year career as a mediator. “Tilsen has brought labor and management together to achieve settlements in countless collective bargaining agreements,” according to the news release announcing his initial appointment.
Jaime Tincher, Dayton’s chief of staff, said in a statement that Tilsen died of complications from a staph infection.
“Commissioner Tilsen became ill last week, and his condition quickly worsened,” Tincher said. She said he was with his wife and other family members at the time of his death early Tuesday. His father-in-law, George Latimer, served as mayor of St. Paul from 1976 to 1990.
Funeral arrangements will be made available in the coming days.
Deputy Commissioner Todd Doncavage will step in as acting commissioner of the state agency, Tincher said.
“Minnesota today lost one of its great public servants,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said. “Over the last six years, I have come to know Josh Tilsen as one of the most dedicated and talented professionals in state government. He was our colleague and our great friend. Josh’s wife, Faith, and the Tilsen family are in our thoughts and prayers today as they grieve this terrible loss.”
Tilsen had worked as a full-time hearing officer and mediator with BMS since 1988, including eight years as manager of administrative hearings. He also has worked as a local union representative and officer for Local 17 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Leif Grina, a longtime friend of Tilsen’s, recalled the former union mediator as a “fierce advocate” for workers.
“Josh had a very strong sense of what he felt was just and fair in the workplace for working people,” Grina said. “He had a lot of integrity.”
David Tilsen recalled that his cousin was “always trying to break down barriers between people” and “always had a smile on his face.”
He said his cousin was dedicated to friends and family. When he was sick last year, David Tilsen said, Josh Tilsen would visit with him and bring old episodes of the show “Maverick,” which ran from 1957 to 1962.
“He gave of his time even though he was very busy,” David Tilsen said.
Tilsen’s father, Ben, who died at age 90 in 2009, instilled in him a sense of racial justice, Grina said. The elder Tilsen joined his family’s business, Tilsenbilt Homes, a company that in the 1950s built homes for blacks who at the time were blocked from homeownership because of restrictive deed covenants and redlining policies that kept them out of many Minneapolis neighborhoods.
“He was an inspiration, and he was just one of those guys who just believed in people and believed the world could be a better place,” David Tilsen said.