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One by one, his accusers strode to the lectern armed with jabs, jests and jokes at Jimmy Tillman, who responded with his trademark grin and a few groans.
Tillman, currently the Wilson County Schools athletic director and formerly a principal and football coach over his long career in education, was on the literal hot seat Tuesday night in the banquet room in the Wedgewood Public Golf Course clubhouse. With a lineup of cronies and colleagues ready to let him have it, Tillman was roasted as a benefit for the North Carolina Baseball Museum.
Tillman said that when museum board members Jim Boykin Jr. and Keith Barnes had asked if he would submit to a roast in his honor as a museum fundraiser. Tillman, always willing to help out for a good cause, agreed.
“I thought what they maybe were doing was pursuing someone who was successful in the community, successful in their career,” he explained prior to the roast. “What they did was get somebody that was born with a big head, a speech impediment and don’t look so good and ain’t so smart. So I was the man!”
Indeed, the lineup of roasters — Sandra Langley, Lonnie Lamm, Miles Brite, Gary Farmer, Richie Pridgen, Les Renfrow, Mark Cockrell, Bentley Massey, Link Page and Bill Williamson — had a field day marveling over the size of Tillman’s head, his shaky command of the English language along with his love of oration, and several other of his “idiosyncrasies.” Nearly everyone who took a shot at Tillman was a former colleague or player from his time at Lucama High, where he was the head football coach, girls basketball coach and baseball assistant coach, or SouthWest Edgecombe High, where he coached football and track, among other sports, and was the athletic director. Tillman later was an assistant principal at Fike High before returning as principal for seven years before retiring.
Helping move the proceedings along as master of ceremonies was one of Tillman’s closest friends and oldest colleagues, Bob Pope. The two worked together at Lucama High in its last two years in the late 1970s.
Of Tillman’s legendary prowess for speaking at length, Pope assured that the last Lucama High athletic banquet was probably still going on due to Tillman.
Langley, the current AD at SouthWest Edgecombe and winningest girls basketball coach in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history, noted that Tillman introduced her at her induction into the North Carolina Association of Athletic Directors Hall of Fame and talked for 20 minutes before even mentioning her name.
Speaking directly to Tillman’s wife, Vickie, Langley said with a smile, “You deserve an award!”
Lamm, a former coaching colleague of Tillman’s, recalled the time he umpired a softball game in which Tillman was one of the coaches. When the opposing coach, James Kent, pointed out that the bat used by all of Tillman’s players — the only one they had other than an old wooden one on the bench — was illegal due to a split grip, Lamm said he told Tillman they could no longer use the bat.
Tillman naturally argued that they had to use it because it was the only usable one they had, but to no avail. So he turned around and addressed the home crowd of spectators, pointing to Lamm and saying accusingly: “He won’t let me use my bat!”
Brite, who coached with and against Tillman, remembers how he had a habit of running onto the field during the game.
“Most coaches would send in plays with their players. Jimmy would just run into the huddle to call his plays,” Brite said. “That’s why you guys have a coaches box today!”
Bentley Massey got the crowd of about 100 going with his rapid-fire delivery, noting that Tillman weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces at birth — and his head weighed nine pounds.
“They told me to keep my remarks between 5 to 7 minutes,” Massey said. “Heck, you can’t walk around Jimmy’s head in 5 to 7 minutes!”
Link Page, who was an assistant coach at SouthWest on Tillman’s staff for nine years, said that he coached the defense.
“Jimmy ran the offense,” Page deadpanned. “He’s always been one of the most offensive people.”
Page recalled the time the Cougars had to face a powerful Farmville Central team led by the ferocious Reid twins, Ronald and Donald. All week, the mantra for the SouthWest players in practice had been, “Hit or be hit!”
When it came time for Tillman to deliver his pregame speech in the locker room, he closed by saying: “Boys, remember this when you get out on that field: You’re going to get hit or be hit!”
Of course, each roaster took time to note Tillman’s good qualities as a devoted teacher, coach and administrator.
“You have made such a difference to a lot of the youth at SouthWest Edgecombe,” Langley said.
Pridgen praised Tillman as a principal.
“He put kids first by having discipline in school,” said Pridgen, who was football coach at Fike when Tillman was the principal. “That’s one reason so many people have enjoyed working for him.”
Finally, Tillman got his chance at a rebuttal and no one was spared.
“These folks have made a great impact on my life,” he said, gesturing toward his roasters at the head table before cracking a grin. “I really think if I had never met these folks, I would have amounted to something!”