South Whidbey’s beloved helping hand passes away

Richard Tilkin, shown here in a recent photograph holding his newest grandchild, Finn Crowder, died at home Tuesday. - Photo courtesy Tilkin family
Richard Tilkin, shown here in a recent photograph holding his newest grandchild, Finn Crowder, died at home Tuesday.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Tilkin family

Richard Tilkin, a South Whidbey man known as much for his sense of humor as his sense of compassion, died unexpectedly at home Tuesday. He was 66.

Tilkin died 53 years to the day that he and his wife, Cynthia, began dating, said his son Dan Tilkin.

His parents knew each other since they were just kids in West Orange. N.J., and their first date was attending the Valentine’s Day dance at West Orange Junior High. The couple would have celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in June.

“My dad was a very quiet, contemplative man, very philosophical. Every one keeps saying how sweet he was,” Dan Tilkin said. “He was a gentle soul.”

Beyond his devotion to his family and his four grandchildren, Richard Tilkin had a passion for people, whether it was helping neighborhood kids build go-carts for the first Soup Box races in Langley, or helping homeowners through Hearts & Hammers.

“He was just wired to help people, to help make people’s lives better,” his son said.

“Dick was a volunteer from the very first year of Hearts & Hammers,” said Lynn Willeford, his longtime neighbor and founder of Hearts & Hammers.

Willeford recalled how Tilkin worked his way up to house captain at Hearts & Hammers, the program that repairs homes for people on Whidbey who are financially or physically unable to do the work themselves. Volunteering for the nonprofit group was an important part of Tilkin’s life, and the Tilkin family has requested that remembrances be made to Hearts & Hammers.

Willeford met the Tilkins in the early 1970s. She remembered Richard Tilkin as a man who loved his wife, and loved life, in generous amounts.

“He was just an amiable, hard-working, loving man,” Willeford said.

“He was a man who always spoke with such respect and love for his wife.”

Willeford remembered seeing Tilkin soon after his quintuple heart bypass operation, “chugging along” Saratoga Road, running to regain his health.

“And within maybe a year, he was loading bales of hay at Bayview Garden Center,” Willeford recalled with a laugh.

It was a job he loved, one that pulled him out of retirement.

Earlier, Tilkin worked for Snohomish County’s juvenile justice system. He took on some of the toughest cases and was a no-nonsense guy — the kids called him Dr. Doom — and eventually became a parole officer. He retired early seven years ago when he was 59.

He was known throughout Puget Sound as the founder of The Generation Gap, a big band that got its name from its wide membership, with players in their teens to musicians in their 70s.

Tilkin was the drummer and band leader, and the group played many gigs for charities and schools. Tilkin kept the band going for 25 years, and it was a perennial favorite at the Harvest Moon Ball at the fairgrounds and later, the Sweetheart Dance at Bayview Hall.

He grew up with music, spending his summers playing gigs in the Catskills. Tilkin played in the symphony and the marching band at the University of Michigan, and the symphony was the first amateur group invited to go behind the Iron Curtain by the Soviets in 1961.

The group’s tour of the Soviet Union gave Tilkin plenty of stories. He was there during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his son recalled his dad’s story of meeting another American backstage at a show in Minsk.

It was very strange to meet another American there, and it was even more memorable because the young man also had ties to Michigan.

Two years later, the world would come to know that man from backstage.

“A few years later they realized the guy they met was Lee Harvey Oswald,” Dan Tilkin said.

His father had other brushes with the famous.

He worked with Betty Liebermann, first wife of former vice presidential candidate Joseph Liebermann, at the start of Liebermann’s political career. Muhammad Ali once picked Tilkin out of a crowd to shake his hand during a visit to New Haven at the height of the town’s race riots.

Dan Tilkin recalled how his family came to Washington more than 30 years ago. His father packed up the family — Dan was 3, sister Robin, 5 — into the family’s Pinto station wagon and moved to Washington in 1973. His father lost his job working for New Haven’s urban renewal program when President Nixon axed funding for Great Society programs.

They rented a home in Kirkland on Lake Washington, but had to move when the house went up for sale and the family couldn’t afford the $60,000 asking price.

“Friends said check out Whidbey Island; they came over here on a lark and fell in love with it,” he said.

The couple bought a ranch-style house on Saratoga Road, a house that was new to the island, too, having been moved up from SeaTac on a barge to get out of the way of a runway expansion project.

Work on the family home created many lasting memories.

Dan recalled the massive stone chimney his dad built — 15 feet wide by 21 feet tall — that took seven years to finish.

It seemed that his father never had enough rocks. Tilkin remembered how they would be driving to the store, or a ball game, when his dad would abruptly pull the Pinto to the side of the road if he saw a rock in the ditch.

“He would force me to help him lift it into the car. As a kid, I was absolutely mortified.”

Dan and his sister would sit in the car and watch as his parents worked on the chimney into the night, under the light of the Pinto’s high-beams.

The search for more rocks became a local legend, and the couple was soon receiving them as gifts.

Once the chimney was finished, his father began building a garage out of rocks, something Dan calls “the eighth wonder of the world.”

He also recalled the time his father had to raise heavy wood beams, but couldn’t afford to hire a crane. Instead, he used builder Peter Hansen’s suggestion: “Let’s use hippie power!”

They put an ad in the paper announcing a pole-raising party, offering free food and beer to any helpers. They could only afford plain label, generic-brand “Beer.”

“Some 40 hippies showed up that my parents had never met before, including a guy wearing a kilt who had bagpipes and an amulet around his neck that he said could make him fly,” Tilkin said.

Richard Tilkin died in his sleep Wednesday; his family said he had laid down for a nap to rest before a Valentine’s date with his wife.

News of his passing spread quickly across South Whidbey.

Maureen Rawley, owner of Bayview Farm & Garden Center, said Tilkin knew everybody and was the center’s ambassador.

He worked two or three days a week at the South End store — loading sacks of feed into people’s vehicles, delivering hay and breaking in the new employees — telling jokes the whole time. Sometimes, he was the punch line.

“He called himself the barn geezer,” Rawley said.

“He kept us all laughing, all the time. He was a real rascal, too,” she added.

Tilkin would often write poetry for his fellow employees, making up wacky rhymes for birthdays or other big events in the lives of his coworkers. “He kept everybody from taking themselves too seriously, that’s for sure.”

“Richard was a real mentor for people. He had a way of affirming young people and making them feel a part of the team,” Rawley said. “He provided a lot of emotional glue for the staff.

“He was a force of nature,” she said. “Big heart. Big soul. We are going to miss him.”

Richard Tilkin is survived by his wife Cynthia, his children Dan and wife Kathryn Tiklin, Robin and husband Kyle Crowder, and four grandchildren; Elle, 7, Ben, 4, Cooper, 5 and Finn, 6 months.

A celebration of his life will be held from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at the family’s home at 3921 S Saratoga Road, Langley.

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