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Meet Doris Tilley, New Resident at Carillon Assisted Living of Durham Whose Historical Research Made Her Famous Across North Carolina

Doris Tilley was a couple years into researching family cemeteries around Durham County when the husband of a friend who was helping Doris with the project remarked, “What are you going to do with Tombstone Tillie today?”

“She got tickled about it and soon my nickname had made it all the way to the state archives office,” says Tilley, a new resident of the assisted living unit at Carillon Assisted Living of Durham. “My husband said, ‘A tombstone will follow you to the grave.’”

Since Doris moved to Carillon in February, she has been interviewed by a documentary film crew, a seminary student, and two people from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the Durham congregation where she has been a member for more than 70 years.

The interest revolves around her research from 1996 to 1990, collecting data from 250 cemeteries in Durham County. The Historical Preservation Society of Durham County published the information in book form in 1991.

Her work included directing a crew of volunteers, speaking to various community groups, and getting a birds-eye view of an era when dirt roads meant many rural residents had to be buried on their family’s property.

“It accomplished wonders,” Tilley says of her research. “I’ve had numerous calls over the years from people who thanked me. It added so much to their knowledge of family members. Some were able to trace two or three generations of their families from that book.”

However, “Tombstone Tilley” has more wide-ranging historical interests, including writing two church histories for St. Paul’s Lutheran. When she set out to compile a volume for its 50th anniversary, she was puzzled by accounts of the church adopting its constitution Mar. 3, 1923—the same day it reportedly organized.

Ultimately, she traveled to the North Carolina office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to meet with the synod’s historian. She discovered the church was actually organized in June of 1922.

“Someone asked me once why I did this and I said, ‘It needed to be written down factually,” Tilley says. “There’s too many discrepancies orally and it’s worth getting it down right. For our 75th anniversary we celebrated the correct organization date.”

Not only has Doris has had a lifelong interest in her heritage, her own story contains some fascinating history. Though born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, her family moved closer to her grandfather’s family in North Carolina in 1929 because of a polio epidemic.

Young Doris wanted to return to Lancaster, but the stock market crash in October of ’29 wiped out employment opportunities in Lancaster. For a while, her father worked at a Ford plant in Charlotte, but eventually the family survived as sharecroppers around North Carolina.

After earning a business college degree and finding a job in Charlotte, her employer relocated to Durham to be more centrally-located. That would prove providential—Doris met her husband, Preston, in Durham after he returned from World War II.

They married in 1947 and have two children, two grandsons, and one great-grandson. Their match lasted for 55 years, until his death in 2002. The other major setback Doris faced in life: a medical condition that forced her to take early retirement in 1972 from the U.S. Army Research Office.

However, that gave her time to pursue history studies at Duke and Duke Technical College and brought her in contact with professor Jean Anderson. Anderson encouraged Tilley to pursue the graveyard study that led to her famous nickname.

While at 93 she is no longer doing historical research, Tilley enjoys living at Carillon. She gives the staff high marks for their helpful, kind attitudes, and quick medical attention when it’s needed.

Doris has a simple definition of happiness: being content with what you have and thanking God for it. Although her tombstone only has room birth and death dates, she says, “I would like to be remembered as a person of faith who tried to leave the world a better place.”

Sounds like a fitting epitaph for Tombstone Tillie.

Posted in Sage Stories on April 4, 2017

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