October 21, 2011 | The Park School of Baltimore | Volume 72 | Issue No. 2
Remembering Leon Tillage
Perhaps this seem odds, writing about the death of a school custodian one hasn't seen in 20 years, but Leon Tillage was a very special man, deeply kind and gentle and caring with a knack for knowing just what to say and also when to be silent. I am not particularly spiritual, but there was a sort of serene otherworldly quality to Leon, a nearly transcendental calm that radiated from him and in turn soothed others.
In his more than 30 years at Park (1967-1998), I can't even imagine how many hundreds -- no, thousands -- of students and faculty and staff Leon changed for the better. He and his brother Linwood (the definition of cool -- nearly silent, totally unrufflable, always pulled into school on his motorcycle and looking like an extra in Easy Rider) minded the facilities, but they weren't what one would call janitors. It's a shame that custodian as a vocational title has come to be synonymous with that of janitor. The Tillage brothers were custodians in the truest sense of the word: caretakers, watchmen, stewards, and guardians. In addition, Leon was a trusted advisor, a consoler of children in distress, a quiet role model, and a friend to all. I can't make anyone who reads Leon's obituary understand what "custodian at The Park School for more than 30 years" really means, but I can try to explain it here and give you some sense of why today's news hits hard.
Everyone at Park knew and loved Leon but until he told his life story in the form of a children's book, few of us knew what Leon had suffered as a young man in the segregated South. I won't go into specifics (read Leon's Story), but I will say that I am hard pressed to think of another man who would have the resilience and generosity of spirit to endure a father violently stolen from him and to then become a sort of grandfather-guardian to every (and I do mean every) young person he encountered. Others would have shut down or turned inward or become embittered, Leon opened up and availed himself to all and never stopped giving.
My mother didn't pick me up most days until around 5:00 so I spent a good share of time with Leon in the afternoons. I played sports and those filled time, but a lot of afternoons I would sit in the hall or outside and do my homework. There were other kids who also stayed late and we often sat together. It was a funny time, a sort of unstructured space where it sometimes felt like we were different and maybe even a little left behind as we saw our peers head home while we waited. In all those years of afternoons staying late, I can't think of any that didn't involve Leon -- Leon who always made time to come by and check in, Leon who always asked after any kids usually present but missing that day, Leon who always inquired how our classes had been and what we were working on, Leon who always made the time a little less lonesome and long, Leon the custodian, our custodian.
Respect, patience, kindness, courtesy, leading by example, there are so many ways that Leon Tillage was as much an educator as the faculty who taught us how to balance equations and interpret symbols in literature. I learned much from Leon but perhaps most important was how to recognize when someone could use a helping hand, a smile, a kind word, or some company. Because Leon came through for me in those ways, I learned to come through similarly for others. From Leon, I learned how to give without expectation of getting in return and I learned how to be available and say "I care" without saying those words. One could call that paying back or even paying forward, but just as it would be inaccurate to call a true custodian a janitor, it would be untrue to call that lesson and gift anything other than Leon's influence.