‘He always looked to the good in everybody’: Friends, family reflect on life of Rick Tillotson
Published 9:30 pm Friday, November 24, 2023
Joyful. Faithful. Encouraging. Inspirational. All those words and more describe Rick Tillotson, the long-time educator and beloved member of First Baptist Church who lost his battle to cancer this week.
“He always looked for the good in everybody,” said Debbie Freeman, who taught at Bowmar Avenue Elementary School while Tillotson was a principal there. Outside of classroom, Freeman and her husband were close friends of Tillotson and his wife, Julie, for more than 40 years.
“He’s everything you would want in a friend and everything a teacher dreams of in a principal,” Freeman said while fighting back tears. “He always looked to the good in everybody.”
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Tillotson passed away Monday after battling multiple myeloma, an aggressive form of cancer. After his diagnosis, Tillotson and his wife moved to Arkansas for treatment. And there, Freeman said, his deep faith and joy radiated.
“As hard as his treatment was, he changed lives over there even being a patient,” Freeman said, adding that his warmth, genuine care for others and faith helped him develop relationships throughout the hospital community. “Where he was, the Gospel just lit up him.”
Faith was a cornerstone of Tillotson’s life, Freeman said, adding that his joy was “permanent because it came from the Lord.” He was active in the First Baptist Church, serving as interim music minister and actively participating in the choir and other committees. In the obituary notice, his family writes that Tillotson “was a kind man who loved his family and his Lord, a principal who cared about his students and their parents, a musician from the heart, a mentor.”
“His faith and being a Christian just made him love people more than maybe others,” said Jamie Tillotson, one of Rick’s younger brothers. “He was a Godly man and he just always reasoned things out, always kept his cool about things …He always seemed to know the right things to say … (and) he always, most always, led us in prayer.”
Rick Tillotson was more than just a brother, as well. “He was my best friend and the rock of the family, especially after our dad passed away.”
He also took a genuine interest in other people. “He could make you feel special,” Jamie Tillotson said. “I think he just always could make people feel special … I don’t know, just never heard of anybody not liking him.”
At school, Freeman said, Tillotson knew the names of all the students and would speak with them in the halls. He ate lunch every day in the cafeteria, with students and teachers, and he took a true interest in his teachers’ success. “We used to do lesson plans on paper, and I would turn in my lesson plans and think ‘no one will ever read this’ and then I’d get them back and he would have notes throughout saying things like, ‘I like this idea. Let me know how it turns out.’”
Tillotson graduated from Warren Central, where he was a leader in sports and voted Mr. Warren Central – honors that would follow him throughout life as he was often teased by his siblings for being the “golden boy.”
“He was Mr. Warren Central,” Jamie Tillotson said. “We would tease him about that – being the golden boy – because mama would always tell us ‘Rick did this’ or ‘Rick did that’.”
And others saw the joy in Rick as well, he said. But I think most people would say that, wherever he went he seemed like he was a favorite. I don’t know how many people have called and everything and telling me, you know, how sorry they were, how much they admired Rick,” Jamie Tillotson said.
The lucky ones, Jamie Tillotson added, got to know and appreciate Rick’s deep sense of humor. “Rick was a really funny guy too and the ones that got pretty close to him … would find that out,” he said.
A couple of years ago, the brothers (Rick and Jamie) were talking about how they would be remembered. “And he (Rick) said, ‘you know, at my funeral, I’d like it if people told some stories that they remember me by and stuff like that, I think that’d be pretty neat.’
“And I told Julie (Rick’s wife) you know it wouldn’t be proper at the funeral, but somehow, you know, Rick would like it if somehow people were able to gather and just tell stories that they remember.
“We’ve got some pretty good stories.”
Funeral services are at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, at First Baptist Church. For more details, read the notice here.
Stacy Graning contributed to this article.