Unbreakable Tye

Beating brain cancer as a boy shaped Richie Tillman into a young man who makes the most of opportunities - thus the new business he's designed based on his ability to make prize flies.

May 27, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

He's happy now that his hands are small.

Large hands would make it so much more difficult to make flies, tyes and buck tails. These things are the very foundation of Tilly's Tyes, the fledgling business that grew out of an introductory level design class at Western Maryland College. He didn't set out to start a business -- heck, he didn't even set out to be an art major -- but there it is, and here he is, graduating with a degree in Studio Art.

H. Richards Tillman Jr. has come at many things in his life from a sideways slant, finding advantages and opportunities in what others would consider obstacles, if not outright tragedies.

For, example, his hands. They're small because of the radiation and chemotherapy he received when he was 7 years old, after doctors removed a brain tumor. He had eight weeks of radiation and two years of chemotherapy, which is like having the flu every day for two years. Injections of human growth hormone helped him make up some of what his body lost during those years. The result is a young man who is neither tall nor short, who looks neither young nor old.

The result is, simply, Richie, the only son of H. Richards Tillman Sr. and Rosalie Tillman. He was born April 15, 1975, which may be tax day to most of us, but it's known as opening day of trout season to the Tillmans. Richie learned to fish when he was 3, began tying tyes at 6.

The new hobby proved useful when he ended up in the hospital, where there was so much waiting. "I would have those neurosurgeons standing around me, in awe at what I could do."

He was a bright kid, given to watching science programs on television. When he heard he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, he said to his mother: "I sure wish it were on my arm or leg." When he was wheeled into the operating room for his first surgery, he looked around approvingly and said: "High tech!"

Out of the hospital, he put aside his tying for a while. There was so much else to do, so much to concentrate on. Looking back, he and his parents see his life as a series of lucky breaks. The surgery -- why, Richie was one of the first to undergo that particular procedure. The Jemicy School for the learning disabled was just getting started in Owings Mills. And then he was able to enroll at Calvert Hall.

The only drawback there was the school dress code. It didn't allow caps, which Tillman prefers, for his hair is sparse, another side effect of radiation and chemo. But in his school picture, he holds his head high, as proud as anyone.

When it came time to go to college, he considered West Virginia Wesleyan, but Western Maryland College in Westminster always had the edge. For one thing, it has a large program for students with learning disabilities. What is Tillman's disability? Might be dyslexia, might be post-traumatic stress disorder, he says nonchalantly. "A lot of stuff happened up there," he says, indicating his head, bare today.

Better yet, Western Maryland College was his grandmother's alma mater. She graduated in 1925, knew her class cheer by heart up until the day she died, just last year. His dad even performed it, down to every boom, chick-a-boom, on graduation day.

Yes, his dad was on the platform on Tillman's graduation day. "Rumor has it," Tillman had told his mother, "that he might even hand me my diploma." He did. Certainly, if any father has earned that right, it's H. Richards Tillman Sr. He has thrown himself in to the parent community at Western Maryland and encouraged his son to go to great lengths to show his school spirit.

It was his father, Tillman says, who encouraged him to attend football games, back in the days when the Green Terror didn't inspire quite so much terror in its opponents. He even made signs to hang along the fences near the field, an easy enough task for a man who runs a shades-and-awnings business on Howard Street.

But it was Tillman who made the fateful bet with a football player: Win your next out-of-town game, and I'll paint my face green and gold, the school colors, for the next home game. They did, and he did.

He didn't stop there. He painted his face green and gold for every home game. Painted his boots, too. Traveled to a game in San Antonio and ended up running through the Atlanta airport in one green shoe, one gold. The stares never bothered him.

Finding his major -- now that was another matter. He started off thinking he might want to try science, but the course work overwhelmed him. Finally, he ended up in Linda Van Hart's Fundamentals of Design class, back to working with his hands.

The course included one extremely practical project: Design a business plan for a "product" of your choice. Tillman came to class with three of his tyes -- the Triple T, the Bonecrusher and a third whose name has been lost to posterity. He had placed them in plastic bags, sealed with logos he had designed. He got an A.

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