Remembering Neil Tilley: Legendary MUN activist
BY ROGER BILL
When Neil Tilley and too other people marched into Art May’s office, the then-president of Memorial University told them to get out. They didn’t, and May called the police. The year was 1991, and the 100 people were protesting May’s decision to kill the University’s Extension Service.
Tilley, who was raised on a farm in Kelligrews, was a field worker with Memorial University’s Extension Service. Extension did more than offer evening classes and arts programs in St. John’s; it was Memorial’s agent for extending the resources of the University to rural communities, including the resources to support social and economic change. Tilley was one of Extension’s community organizers, and he was committed to rural Newfoundland.
“[Tilley] delighted in being called on the carpet because some cabinet minister had complained about his activities,” said friend and colleague Pat Hann. Cabinet ministers had always complained about the Extension Service’s activism, and had always pressured the University to rein it in. When Art May became Memorial’s president the politicians finally found a friend.
The police did come to May’s office that day and Tilley and the other protestors did leave, but not before photographing a person dressed in a gorilla costume sitting behind May’s desk. They turned the photo into a postcard, with the words “Office of the President. Memorial University” printed on the back, and for years afterwards Tilley and Hann would send one of the postcards to May on the anniversary of the killing of the Extension Service.
Looking back, the death of the Extension Service in 1991 seems to have marked a turning point, a point where Memorial turned away from community development and activism and began to measure success more in terms of getting research grants from defence contractors and pharmaceutical companies, and persuading oil and mining companies to pay for new buildings on campus. Tilley, however, did not change. He kept the faith, and along with Hann and others, kept the Extension name and formed the Extension Community Development Co-operative.
Tilley, who passed away on Jan. 26 after a battle with cancer, was president of the Council of Students’ Union (CSU) – the precursor to the MUN Students’ Union – in 1975-76. In the ’70s CSU presidents were expected to go into electoral politics, but Tilley went to Port-aux- Basques for the Extension Service when he graduated. Hann says fieldworkers were expected to help people “organize, plan, and take action,” he said. “We were shit disturbers.” Tilley was good at it.
“Neil was passionate about his work in rural Newfoundland. He would get fired up … he was a fantastic ranter, but he was also very funny. Neil was a fun-haver,” said Bruce Gilbert, a former Extension Service colleague of Tilley’s.
Tilley was organizing co-ops in rural Newfoundland when outport communities were still firmly in the grip of merchants and the clergy. Tilley was feisty, but friends say he had a gentle soul and went through life with a twinkle in his eye.
Tilley saw climate change coming more than 20 years ago: He joined the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, talked about sustainability, community health, wellness, and grew organic food on the family farm in Kelligrews.
“Neil was one of the first to make the connection between the environment and health,” said Gilbert. “He was ahead of the wave.”
Tilley had earned a master’s of arts in community leadership at Regis University in Colorado. Maybe that’s where his environmental sensibilities were sharpened, but Hann believes the seeds were sown during his childhood in Kelligrews.
“Neil’s uncles were into recycling when the people who did it were called junkmen … and they took Neil with them on their rounds,” said Hann.
As Tilley’s health declined he was still riding his 1961 Ferguson tractor, ploughing the family farm fields in Kelligrews. He continued to sell organic carrots at the Food for Thought natural food store on Duckworth Street and his small organic farm became an outdoor classroom for many. Tilley believed in adult education, not the kind of lifelong learning that Art May’s Memorial came to offer, or what Hann describes as “courses for well-off people in St. John’s who are bored.”
More than 30 years ago Tilley moved to the west coast of the island to work for the Extension Service. What followed was a lifetime of working with community groups, organizing meetings and conferences, sitting on committees, managing research projects, teaching in classrooms and community halls, producing educational videos, navigating local politics, making friends, and making a difference. Memorial University may have fired Tilley, but it did not stop him.
Originally published in The Muse on February 8, 2008.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.