The following was read at the funeral of Gordon Tillman, whose family donated the building currently used as The Arc of Alabama’s office.
Memorial Service for Gordon Smith Tillman October 22, 2021
Presented by Hal Tillman
Gordon Tillman was born October 7, 1956. He died In October 2021 at 65 years of age. His parents were Harriet and Jack Tillman. He had a sister named Luci Tillman Colee and a brother named Claude. They were all members of First Christian Church. All of them preceded him in death.
Gordon was Jim Colee’s uncle and my first cousin. He was born with profound mental and physical birth defects as a result of his mother contracting Rubella during her pregnancy. Rubella carries a very high risk of birth defects. A vaccine was finally created for it in the late 1960s and this eradicated the disease. Today all children are vaccinated with the MMR shot for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella.
Gordon was able to live in his home until he was about five years old. But as time went on, his profound mental deficiencies and daily needs made it impossible to care for him and keep him safe. His doctors recommended that he be committed to Partlow State School and Hospital in Tuscaloosa for the mentally retarded, as it used to be called. We don’t use that word anymore. Today we say mentally impaired or mentally handicapped.
At first glance it might appear that Gordon’s influence on this world stopped when he was institutionalized. But actually, that’s where it began. His life indeed had an enormous impact on others who were just like him, as well as on total strangers, as you’ll hear.
Gordon’s family loved him very much. They visited him as often as they could at that hospital in Tuscaloosa. Soon Harriet and Jack were made aware of other parents’ complaints of substandard treatment and abuse of the patients there. These were their children. Harriet took on the fight to make radical changes in Alabama’s mental hospitals. Her family was connected with Governor George Wallace, so she took her concerns directly to him, and he agreed to let her do something about it.
Families of concerned patients filed lawsuits asking federal courts to mandate large scale institutional change. The United States District Judge of the Middle District of Alabama ruled that mentally impaired persons confined in Alabama state hospitals were indeed being denied a constitutional “right to treatment.” He ordered a range of institutional changes in our state’s mental hospitals. You can read all about this if you’re interested in Wyatt vs. Stickney, known as The Wyatt Case.
For each institution, Governor Wallace appointed a Human Rights Committee to oversee the implementation of these much-needed changes. This Committee acted as the “eyes and ears” of the court to protect the constitutional rights of the patients. A seven-member human rights committee was appointed for Partlow Hospital, and Gordon’s mother was named by the Governor as the chairperson.
She worked tirelessly to make changes in everything from simple improvements like painting the walls and increasing staffing, to very serious changes such as discontinuing the use of what they called “training wands,” which were actually cattle prods. She led a complete overhaul of the system in banning cruel and hazardous treatment. Gordon’s mother even insisted the FBI be brought in to help investigate the allegations of inhumane treatments. She was interviewed by the New York Times regarding her work. Thanks to Harriet, and to her husband Jack, much has changed in how we care for institutionalized people – not only in Alabama, but across the nation.
Gordon’s father Jack Tillman was a very active member of the Association for Retarded Citizens, and served as president for several years. We now call this organization “The Arc.” Jack served on the National Board for The Arc. He helped build the group homes for mentally impaired citizens in Birmingham and supported The Arc in every way. Gordon lived in one of these group homes before he became ill. One of The Arc directors is here today. April Williams, we thank you for your kindness and care for Gordon.
Decades ago, Gordon’s parents contributed significantly to the purchase of a building in Montgomery for the state Arc to house their offices. Most Arc chapters have to rent their office space. To this day, The Arc of Alabama still occupies the building that Jack and Harriet gave them, and it’s still rent free.
Even though Gordon was nonverbal, he knew he was loved. We believe he knew his parents and family were there for him. His sister Luci would visit him, and she made trips to Tuscaloosa with her mother as she was leading the Partlow Human Rights Committee.
When Jim Colee was a boy, he would go with his grandfather, Jack, to visit his Uncle Gordon. There was a playground there. Jim recalls great memories of how Gordon absolutely loved swing sets! Jim and Gordon would also go round and round on the merry go round. Those were good times.
Gordon was loved. and because he was loved, his life made a remarkable impact on this world.
In the beginning I mentioned that his life also had a positive impact on total strangers. At his death, Gordon’s kidneys and liver were donated. Now three others have a chance at a better, longer life.
So you see, a life story that at first glance appears tragic, had untold positive influences on how we care for people who can’t care for themselves, or even speak for themselves.
Gordon’s life mattered just as all God’s children matter. and we remember him here today, and thank God for him.