NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. — It may have been April Fool’s Day but it was no joke on April 1, 1968, when Jim Tillinghast took a job with the town Public Works Department.

He was 44 at the time and had worked a variety of jobs, doing carpentry, installing septic systems and even, as a teenager and young man, working at the old woolen mill in Ashaway.

“The foreman knew me pretty good, and he just kept after me,” Tillinghast said, explaining how he came to be a town laborer.

Almost 48 years have passed, and Tillinghast, now 90, is still on the job, working full time.

“He’s the first one in in the morning and the last one to leave at the end of the day,” said Don Hill, the interim head of public works. “And he’s a hell of a worker and strong as an ox. I’d put him up against any 20-year-old anytime, and Jim would run circles around them.”

The shop’s head mechanic, Kip Taylor, said he’s been working with Tillinghast for 34 years and still marvels at his work ethic, institutional memory of the town’s roads and drainage systems, and his keen sense of humor.

“He’s easygoing and likes to have fun, to fool around,” Taylor said. “And he’s a wealth of knowledge. All over town, he knows how the water runs, where catch basins are, where the culverts are.”

“Whenever there is a drainage issue, he knows it all memorywise,” Hill said. “He knows where everything is, when it was put down, what direction it goes. He’s just a huge asset.”

“With Jim, it’s like having an encyclopedia of the town,” highway foreman Stephen Holliday said. “You can ask him something that happened 25, 30 or 45 years ago, and he will tell you who did it, why and where,” he said, explaining that Tillinghast can pinpoint from the road where a pipe is located underground, what type it is and the direction in which it is positioned.

“He’s an invaluable employee, if you ask me,” Holliday said, adding that Tillinghast is better known at the shop as “Uncle Jim.”

Tillinghast shrugs it off when he hears his co-workers praise his knowledge of the town’s 64 miles of paved roads, almost 6 miles of dirt roads, and drainage systems, all spread out over 55 square miles.

“I should know it,” he said. “I’ve been here all my life.”

At 4 a.m. every day, Tillinghast gets out of bed at his home on Clarks Falls Road and fixes himself a hearty breakfast.

“Sometimes I’ll make a pork chop, or sometimes bacon and eggs,” he said.

He does all his own cooking. He said he was married but, he explains, “I ended that.” He also is the father of four children.

Asked why he keeps working long after most people his age have retired, he said it’s simple – he likes it.

“It’s fun. It’s something to do,” he said. “I’m not just sitting home and dreaming all the time.”

He said his doctor told him years ago, “Keep going Jim, as long as you can; that’s what keeps you healthy.”

On a recent weekday, Tillinghast was operating a small tractor with a sickle bar, trimming grass and brush along the side of Rocky Hollow Road.

“Jim has worn out more equipment – not abused it, but just worn it out – (more) tractors, mowers, sickle bars than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Holliday said. “He just manicures the town. It’s almost like he could do it with his eyes closed.”

Tillinghast doesn’t use a cellphone or carry a radio so, when his tractor fails, he stands by the side of the road until someone comes along and sees him.

“Everyone in town knows him except for the newcomers, those who have been here less than 20 years,” Taylor said.

“And if his tractor is down, he’s standing right there, watching you fix it because he wants to get right back on it,” Hill said.

“We have a saying around here: ‘If it’s not snowing, Jim’s mowing,’ ” Holliday said.

Does Tillinghast have any plans to retire?

“Yeah, sometime, probably after I pass away,” quipped the self-described Yankee.

As long as Tillinghast wants to work and is able, Selectman Nicholas Mullane said he will have a job with the town.

“We will not raise the issue of retirement; that would be age discrimination,” the first selectman said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.