ARCHDALE — Jerry Tillman’s influence on state politics had a long-lasting impact that’s bound to extend well past his death.
“He had a huge impact on our area,” state Sen. Dave Craven said. “He was a champion for our community.”
Tillman, a longtime state senator from Randolph County, died Saturday at age 82.
Tillman, a retired teacher, administrator, and coach in public schools, was first elected to the state Senate in 2002. He resigned from the chamber in 2020. He served a total of nine terms and became one of two majority whips in the Senate.
Craven, while in high school, was a page for Tillman in 2005. Fifteen years later, he was appointed to replace Tillman and later elected to the position.
“Jerry Tillman has been good to me through the years,” Craven said. “I can never thank him enough. I want to honor him in any way we can. I want to build on the legacy that he built.”
Tillman’s efforts involved becoming an advocate for Randolph Hospital and North Carolina Zoo.
He was a strong proponent of K-12 schools and a leader on education issues, given his background in the Randolph County School System. During his time in the majority, the legislature overhauled teacher and principal pay scales, resulting in substantial raises.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said in a statement: “Jerry was highly regarded in Raleigh and back in Randolph County for being a dedicated educator and leader. He played a significant role in shaping the policies that made North Carolina the best state in the nation. Jerry was truly larger than life. He was never afraid to share his thoughts on a particular bill and would often lighten the mood by regaling us with tales about music, racing, and baseball.”
Earlier this week, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state facilities to half-staff for two days to honor Tillman.
“Senator Tillman was a dedicated public servant who worked tirelessly for his community for many years,” Cooper said in a statement. “Our prayers are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”
During his nine terms in the Senate, Tillman emerged as a chamber leader. He served as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education, and Majority Whip.
As finance committee chairman, his reputation grew as a lawmaker pushing for lower taxes, Craven said.
“His leadership in the Senate ushered in a new era that transformed North Carolina’s political and economic landscape,” Craven said. “His influence will be felt in Randolph County for generations to come.”
Tillman rose to the No. 4 seat in the 50-member chamber. That was the top spot other than those reserved for specific leadership roles.
“He was as senior as you can be,” Craven said.
Often referred to as “coach” by his colleagues, Sen. Tillman’s love of baseball and music was well known. He would often recite songs to people who stopped by his office.
He also had an interest in NASCAR, creating a longtime friendship with legendary driver Richard Petty of Level Cross.
In his retirement announcement in 2020, Tillman said: “It has been a pleasure serving the people that I have been so honored to represent over the years. My greatest joy in serving has always come from helping people with their everyday needs.”
He took the most pride in the assistance he provided others.
“I’ve been very, very pleased to help people,” Tillman said upon his retirement. “When you can help them, you have a good feeling, and I’ve done that for 20 years. I feel like that it’s time for me to move on and give somebody else a chance to do this work.”
His wife, Marian, died in 2019.