Sunday, April 18, 2010

76-Year-Old To Graduate From Tennessee Tech

Ronald Tiller stepped out of Roaden University Center on a recent windy March day dressed in full graduation regalia – black robe flapping in the wind and mortarboard situated evenly on his head. It’s not graduation day. This is for a photo shoot.

“I don’t mind if people stare. I waited 50 years to do this,” Tiller said on his way to the front of Derryberry Hall. Tiller’s life is filled with successes: A happy family, a high-flying career as marketing executive for two international companies, and now, enjoyment of his lakeside retirement home in Vonore, Tenn. Yet there was always one aspect of his life that nagged at him. He never finished college ­– until now. On May 8 at age 76, Tiller accepts his bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Tech University President Bob Bell with more than the usual high level of pride a graduate feels. Tiller’s road to graduation day isn’t like anyone else’s. He first arrived on TTU’s campus in 1957 just 10 days after his honorable discharge from the Army’s 11th Airborne Division based in Fort Campbell, Ky. He was fresh from service in Germany.

“I stopped at the railroad tracks and saw a couple of guys I’d gone to high school with in Germantown, Tennessee. I had on my plaid Bermuda shorts and my over-the-calf argyle socks. I was all ready for college,” Tiller said.

Tiller said he really didn’t know what the college experience entailed. He majored in agriculture because he’d grown up on a dairy farm and figured he knew something about that. Tiller attended TTU for more than four years and got within 16 hours of graduation when he was recruited to go work for John Deere. While at John Deere, he launched the marketing activities for the then-new lawn and garden division for both the Memphis and Kansas City marketing divisions of John Deere. He grew the Memphis division from infancy to $40 million in sales and the Kansas City division to $66 million in sales. After retirement from Deere, he next worked for Woods Equipment Co., another manufacturer of agricultural equipment. His career took him eventually to Farmington, Mo., where he met his wife, Marietta. He later lived in the Chicago area. The couple had three children, all now grown: Ronald Todd Tiller of Knoxville; Leigh Tiller Pearson of Denver; and Gregory “Trey” Tiller of Houston. Even Tiller’s children were unaware that their father hadn’t finished his degree.

“I was carrying this burden for 50 years. I always, always wanted to go finish my degree. I saw an article in the Visions alumni magazine about the finish-your-degree program, and knew this was the way,” Tiller said.

His first step was to contact Tammy Boles, coordinator of programs for the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. Boles was taken with Tiller immediately and wanted to help him. Along the way, she found Tiller so inspiring that she pushed herself to finish her doctorate in December 2009.

“We were planning to walk together,” Boles said. “He’s a Type A personality. He goes at everything full force. I thought if he could do it, so could I.”

Before that could happen, however, Tiller experienced a mild stroke and had to stop his 12- to 15-hour days for a short time during the Fall 2008 semester. But he was back to full speed by the Fall 2009 semester. He graduates May 8 with a bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies. Steve Frye, the professor overseeing his culminating project, said Tiller’s concentration areas are agriculture and animal husbandry and the topic of his culminating project is the history of John Deere and the development of the plow.
Tiller may have learned a lot along the road to finishing his degree, but Frye bets he’s learned even more from Tiller. Tiller wants to encourage others to finish their college degrees, no matter how difficult the hurdle may seem.

“The toughest part was probably actually making that decision to do it, to finish my degree…The best part of it? I can’t get enough. I can’t stand to miss class,” Tiller said.