James Tillman was born eighty-six years ago in Evanston, Indiana. His mother was, as most women were in that day, a housewife. His father, David, was a milkman who made deliveries in a horse-drawn wagon. Jim was a child of the depression, and although his family didn’t have much in the way of money, he grew up rich in friends and with the freedom to roam about that most of us can only envy. He was a bright child and a smart young man–he loved scouting and earned a merit badge for packing a mule name Jennifer H, Jackass–but he was also a dreamer who loved music and books, especially pulp science fiction. Although his mid-western upbringing gave him a solid footing in life, his head was most often in the clouds, and his school grades were not something to brag about. Jim never was much one to brag, anyway, even when he had call to.
After high school, he went to college at a small religious college, Madison, in Nashville Tennessee, where students earned tuition money by working in the college garden or in the dairy washing udders with a dish mop. A life-long carnivore, he didn’t care much the vegetable he helped raise. Nor did he care for the school’s strict rules. He was eventually dismissed for the offense of going roller skating.
His next educational stop was the University of Tennessee, where he majored in chemistry. Somewhere along the way, the Army drafted him for WWII but found him unfit for service due to poor eyesight, and they squirreled him away in an Army hospital where he read one penny novel after the other until they let him go home. He returned to Tennessee to become a physicist, and he earned a masters degree there. He was soon hired for the UT engineering department and was one of the first hires to greet the new wave of GI Bill students. He did ground-breaking research in the field of radio and antenna arrays (the bent-cone shaped antennae atop your local phone towers owe much to his work) and assembled a huge collection of science fiction novels and magazines. He married a young secretary in the department, Connie Cate, and went off to Auburn briefly for a doctorate.
Jim and Connie and three daughters, all of them smart and beautiful, all of them voracious readers who emptied his bookshelves, book-by-book. His daughters were followed by four grandchildren, all of them readers, all of them sharing a love for Jim’s last favorite series of books, Harry Potter.
Jim measured out his life in the way that few men do. He set goals and met them all, one of the few people who could say that he did everything he ever wanted to do. He gave his all to his career, to his children and his grandchildren. He was humble by nature, unassuming, and smart as any tack ever hoped to be. If he had unfinished business, it was to find out if Harry would finally overcame Voldemort in the final book. I suspect he knew, though, that goodness would overcome evil, something he believed in strongly.
After a long struggle with a heart that simply couldn’t do its work anymore, Jim passed away today. He was my father-in-law, he was a good man, and his was a life well-lived.