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Remembering Rollie Tillman

UNC Kenan-Flagler lost a treasured member of our community: Rollie Tillman Jr. (BSBA ’55) died peacefully on Dec. 2 from complications due to Covid-19.

“Few people have had as great an impact on UNC as Rollie did,” said Dean Doug Shackelford (BSBA ’80). “You can’t overstate his contributions of outstanding leadership and service that left an indelible mark on countless students, the University and the Business School. If there were a Mount Rushmore for UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty, Rollie would be on it.”

Shackelford “had the privilege of knowing Rollie, his wisdom, wit, and encouragement, but for those who never had the joy of knowing this special person, be assured that almost anything you treasure about UNC Kenan-Flagler has Rollie’s fingerprints on it.” 

Tillman’s greatest love was being in the classroom, teaching and mentoring students, many of whom continued to be a part of his life long after he retired and they treasure their memories of him.

“I was a little in awe of Rollie when I started his entrepreneurship class,” says Jeff Tucker (MBA ’00), chair of our Board of Advisors. “He was a legend at the School. Throughout the project of writing a business plan, what became clear was how much he genuinely cared about his students. He spent hours with us, helping us hone and think through our business plans. In Rollie’s classroom you felt safe and learned a lot, not just about the subject matter but about life.”

Rollie TillmanTillman’s impact went far beyond the classroom. He once said investors bet on “people who can deliver on dreams and promises.” He was a visionary about the roles UNC could play in business and society and he delivered on that promise. He bridged the academic and business communities to shape students and influence leaders.

He was a great ambassador for Carolina. “Rollie always experienced and projected this University and the Business School at a very personal level while still thinking on a larger scale,” said Jack Evans, former dean. 

Born in 1933 in Lake Wales, Florida, Tillman came to Chapel Hill at age 18 in 1951. A Business School undergraduate, he fell in love with the intellectual challenge and physical beauty he found here, and knew it was where he wanted to spend his life. He also fell in love with his future wife, the late Mary Windley.

Music was an important part of his life. He was drum major for the Marching Tar Heels band and the self-taught pianist was so accomplished “he could have gotten a job as the entertainment at the Carolina Inn,” said Bill Perreault, former associate dean and his colleague on the marketing faculty. Tillman delighted students, executives, family and friends with his playing throughout his life.

Tillman was honored with the Orders of The Old Well, The Golden Fleece and The Grail-Valkyries. “His election to one of these is the highest honor a student can achieve for contributions to academics, service and leadership,” said Perreault, “In the past century, only a handful of people have been elected to all three, and it tells us something about how Rollie Tillman shaped the ideals of this place that he is one of them.”

Rollie Tillman with professors Dick Levin and Bob Headen

Three greats gone but not forgotten: Professors Rollie Tillman, Dick Levin and Bob Headen

He earned his MBA and DBA at Harvard, where he was assistant editor of the Harvard Business Review. His classmates were the late CL Kendall and Bob Headen (BA ’56, MBA ’60), who later joined him on the Business School faculty and became lifelong friends.

Tillman returned to Carolina in 1960 to join the Business School faculty and served until 2003 when he retired as the first H. Allen Andrew Professor of Entrepreneurship. A partial list of the significant contributions he made to Carolina in each of six decades includes his roles in:

  • MBA Program: Tillman led the MBA Program from 1966-68. He and his colleagues established the culture of our MBA program and expanded it to a two-year program. They collaborated to “make teaching and the student experience at UNC something really special and innovative,” said Perreault. “From those efforts came innovations such as the use of student teams, quantitative approaches to problem solving, and a core curriculum with cross-functional coordination – innovations that have since been copied by every major program in the country.”
  • Executive development: He directed Executive Development from 1968-77, a period of enormous contributions to the management development plans of companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and throughout the Southeast. He brought in discretionary revenue and pushed for it to be invested in faculty research grants, doctoral student support and other efforts to build intellectual capital.
  • Entrepreneurship: Tillman was the father of entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler. He offered the first integrated course offerings and taught New Ventures. He led the campaign for an MBA concentration in entrepreneurship and provided key leadership in growing the Venture Capital Investment Competition.
  • Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise: He was founding director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, which was created by an $18 million gift from the William Rand Kenan Charitable Trust. Getting the Kenan Institute started was one of his proudest accomplishments. “In a broad sense we’re launching a new product,” with the Kenan Center “built as a think tank,” he told Triangle Business Journal. “Our goal is to become the one place where the highest quality and most timely research on private enterprise is being conducted. The basic mission is to bring together for better mutual understanding the academic and business worlds and their government. We want people to understand the whole enterprise system.”
  • University relations: Tillman served as vice chancellor for university relations for 10 years, with responsibilities including fundraising, extension and continuing education, the Morehead Planetarium, WUNC and the news bureau. To alumni and business groups across the state, Tillman shared Carolina’s story and value: “The simple fact is that the University exists to seek, discover, preserve and transmit the truths in its many contexts,” he said. “All other institutions have doctrines to espouse, platforms to rally ‘round, creeds or other axes to grind. Only the University is set apart to examine all the doctrines, and to look unblinkingly at all ‘isms’ whether socialism, humanism, communism or capitalism.”

Tillman received the 1996 Faculty Service Award from the UNC General Alumni Association for over 45 years of diverse contributions to UNC, students and the state of North Carolina. He also received the Kenan-Flagler Business School Leadership Award and the Roy W. Holsten Exceptional Service Award. The Kenan Institute honors his legacy with the Rollie Tillman Jr. Outstanding Leadership Award, which recognizes a graduating Kenan Scholar who demonstrates superior leadership through their contributions to Kenan Institute initiatives.

He co-authored three books, including “Promotion: Persuasive Communication in Marketing” and “Bank Marketing: Text and Cases” with Luther H. Hodges Jr. (BA ’57). He developed his business experience through consulting, including Bank of America and the Coca-Cola Company, and board service for firms and nonprofits like UNC Press. He also was national director of the American Marketing Association and chaired the Fulbright-Hays Program advisory panel on business administration.

As Tillman once said, “Whether for profit or not for profit, there’s no point in doing something if it doesn’t interest you or if you can’t make a difference. Always try to make a difference.”

“Our debt to Rollie for his many contributions to our community is beyond measure, and we will always try to make a difference and continue his work,” said Shackelford.

Rollie Tillman and son in the Tillman Lobby

Rollie Tillman with his grandson and son in the Tillman Lobby of the McColl Building

“The Tillman Lobby welcomes you into the McColl Building in the same way that Rollie Tillman welcomed generations of new students at orientation with his history of Carolina,” said Shackelford.

“When we return to campus, think of Rollie as you enter the McColl Building. Pause a moment to think about the many ways Rollie made us better. He represents the best of who we are today – and is an inspiration for all we want to be.”

Read more about Tillman, his beloved family, his civic work and how to honor him here. Contributions to UNC Kenan-Flagler will directed to the Rollie and Mary Windley Tillman Endowment Fund the Tillmans started years ago.