CULLMAN, Ala. – After a year in the jungles of Burma, World War II was coming to an end and it was time for John Tillman to return home to Cullman. He arrived home on the General Collins, the same ship that took him back to Korea a few years later.
Tillman was out of the service for about five years. During that time he made one cotton crop, went to St. Bernard for two years majoring in science and went to Florence State (now UNA) and earned his bachelor’s degree in science. He applied to teach at his alma mater, Fairview, but the superintendent at the time thought it was too soon after Tillman’s own graduation to come back to the school as a teacher.
His next two choices for a teaching job were Cold Springs and West Point. Tillman chose to teach at West Point High School. He speaks fondly of his time teaching at West Point. During the summers off from teaching, he attended Peabody (at Vanderbilt) to work on his master’s degree.
He explained, “I stayed on the Vanderbilt campus for three summers and I stayed one summer before I was recalled to active duty working on (my) school administration (degree).”
“I was a surgical technician and I got recalled to active duty during the Korean conflict. I went back in as a sergeant and I decided I had better make the most of it while I was in and they had plenty of surgical technicians. I learned I was capable or able to apply for directive commission and I thought that would be easier than going through OCS and all this other stuff,” said Tillman. “I filled out the papers and they put me in front of a board of officers, and I had covered everything in the medics during World War II that was in the books. I just moved right on through and about 30 days (later) I got a notice that I had been accepted. One day I was a staff sergeant and went in the next morning without any chevrons on and the colonel swore me in. I became a second lieutenant.”
Tillman was assigned to the 45th Division in a medical battalion, and unlike WWII, there were mobile Army surgical hospitals (MASH) in Korea. He was the motor, mess and supply officer.
He said, “I was always able to take and try to maneuver something. That deal over in Korea, the officers wanted a mess hall located in the side of the hill. I worked something around and we built that in the side of the hill with a 30-inch window that ran across there. First class!”
During a stalemate period in the conflict, Tillman went on a short leave to Tokyo. Things had changed drastically when he returned.
He said, “When I came back, they told me that the medical officers and all officers were pulling patrol duty. I thought they were joking, but they weren’t. The next night I had myself in charge of a seven-man crew. You had your second line of defense. Well our situation was covering that patrol area because some people had been slipping through there. The first night we were exposed out there, but we came out OK.”
After the war, Tillman had several months of active duty left. The Army assigned him to Ft. Sam Houston as an instructor in the Medical Field Service School. His assistant instructor was a medical doctor.
Tillman laughed, “If we got in a question/answer type deal and someone shot me a question that I didn’t feel capable of taking care of, all I had to say was, ‘Doctor?’ and he’d take over.”
Tillman retired as a colonel and returned to education.
“I found out there was an opening at Cullman High School and I left to come back. I don’t regret it. The first two years I was at Cullman High School I was a chemistry, physics, biology and general science teacher,” Tillman recalled.
He was assistant principal for six years while still teaching four classes a day. In 1962 he became the principal.
He said, “That was 27 years I stayed at Cullman High School. Then I went to the central office as an administrative assistant to the superintendent for six years. I retired with 39 years in the school system. While I was up there at Cullman High School, I passed out probably about 4,000 diplomas.”
Tillman said still runs into former students regularly, but Paul Lamar is the one that stands out.
“I was out in California at the National Teachers Meeting for Secondary Schools. I got my ticket for a tour of Universal Studios and Beverly Hills High School. I thought that would be good to compare Beverly Hills High School with Cullman. I might pick up something,” he joked.
“We were taking a break and a young man walked around and said ‘Mr. Tillman, you may not remember me. My name is Paul Lamar.’ He’d been out there about two years and he decided that Sunday afternoon that he would tour Universal Studios. About four to six years later, I was down in the Mobile area and I was out there looking at the submarine. There was a young man up there at the periscope. I said to him, ‘Actually a smaller person would be better suited for this than a larger person would be.’ I looked up and it was the same guy. I said, ‘Where we going to meet at next time?”
Tillman said he attended almost every football game during his time at Cullman High School. He is proud of the school in which he spent so many years teaching and leading. He is proudest of watching his vision for Cullman High School come to fruition.
He explained, “As assistant principal, I made the master schedule and assigned the students to their classes. In that decision, I could see on the wall that pretty soon we needed some more space. On a field trip, I happened to see space where the new (current) high school is located. It was a sage patch. The superintendent at that time was my high school coach at Fairview and a science teacher. Every time I got a chance, I’d plug for it. There was this land over here and it fit right in the middle. I talked it up enough that the board finally got interested in it. They bid it and they bought it.”
He continued, “I also realized we needed some transportation for all the athletics we had and field trips. We worked out a way that the county schools were nice enough to let use some buses. I wanted to get some for Cullman High School and the Cullman City Schools system. I came up with a plan and asked the superintendent to approve for me to purchase three buses with Cullman City Schools on them- black and gold. We would charge a fee for each group that worked with it. I so started off buying the first three buses and getting those set up.”
Tillman continued to keep his eye out for available land. He bid on the land where the tennis courts are now located.
He said, “When I bid, I announced I was bidding for Cullman City Schools, and I think that helped that some of them that could have bid on it just kind of backed off. We got the bid for $10,000 less than we had.”
Tillman was able to purchase three more acres with the $10,000.
Tillman made another critical decision: “One of the board members wanted to put the tennis courts on the back of the gym. Well, I didn’t want it to be put in the back of the gym because I thought 20-30 years down the line, you’re going to need another gym. That worked out.”
Tillman also negotiated the plan that allowed Cullman City Schools to purchase the eight additional acres that are now home to Cullman Primary School and the soccer field.
“It all fit in there and you couldn’t find a better place for those tennis courts,” Tillman said with a little smirk.
He talked about his family.
While at St. Bernard, Tillman met his wife, Lillian Fay Bailey from Baileyton. She had taught school for three years. She wasn’t interested in teaching or going to college, so she was a stay at home mother with their daughter, Charlotte. Charlotte graduated from Cullman High School and then attended the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Tillman said, “Charlotte majored in medical technology and worked down at the blood bank at the hospital for four to five years, I suppose. She said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Would you pay for another college education?’ I agreed on it, so she started looking and wanted to get into pharmacy. She found a little school down in Lee County in south Alabama that she enrolled with and graduated. She got her degree from Auburn University.”
When asked who he cheers for, Alabama or Auburn, Tillman laughed, “I’m for both of them. I’ve got an investment in both colleges.”
His wife passed away in 2006. He has one grandson, Nikolas Tillman Gutowski.
Tillman said kids today aren’t much different than those of past generations.
His advice? Stop worrying about other people’s business.
“Growing up is a deal,” he said. “How did we ever get grown? All the chances that we take, young and old. We’ve just got to be more concerned about the other person and not extending into their privileged space.”
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