Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass community grieves for beloved friend and mentor James Tilley

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(The Tilley family)

(The Tilley family)

The University of Massachusetts lost a valued member of its community on Friday, Feb. 5 with the unexpected death of 21-year-old student James Andrew Tilley, a senior physics major and math minor from Windham, New Hampshire.

UMass Police reported Tilley dead at the scene after his body was found outside of Hasbrouck Laboratory building early Friday morning. Although police suspect that he fell from one of the building’s windows, his death is under investigation by the Massachusetts State Police.

Friends of Tilley say there was no one exactly like him, and he was important to many members of the campus community. When police and the Dean of Students office began to contact his friends, dozens of students and faculty converged upon the Whitmore Administration Building to learn what had happened.

“I was expecting like five of you,” said senior physics major Evan Stump, quoting the words of Associate Dean for Student Life Kelly Gray upon their arrival.

“He drew quite a crowd,” Stump continued. “There were like 40 people.”

Senior physics major Gabriel Madigan attributes the large crowd to the fact that Tilley liked to truly get to know the people he met.

“He didn’t just know people superficially,” Madigan said.

According to an email sent to the campus community by Senior Associate Dean of Students David Vaillancourt, Tilley was a member of the Commonwealth Honors College, a member of the Society of Physics Students and a tutor. Tutoring, his friends and family say, was a big part of Tilley’s life.

“It was very important to him that (the people he was tutoring) understood all the material,” Madigan said.

“James would not leave until somebody would get it,” added Stump, explaining that the physics department only pays tutors for 10 hours each week, but that Tilley would go above and beyond the job’s requirements to best help his pupils.

“He would just tutor for hours for free,” Stump said, even if that meant pulling all-nighters to get his work done. Tilley’s eagerness to help extended to his friends as well.

“He was the ultimate mentor to so many people. There’s at least one class that James has gotten us all through,” said Stump, speaking for himself, Madigan, David Balaban, a senior majoring in physics and computer science, and Boris Stanchev, a senior majoring in physics and math.

Together, the group of four shared fond memories of Tilley, who they had all known for at least two and a half years. A very intelligent man, Tilley was a skillful piano player and would code for fun, once programming a video game that his friends described as a SimCity knockoff. He also once built a working speaker. He was very proud of both projects.

Stanchev described Tilley as being so much fun to be around that it was often difficult “to really get anything serious done together.” He loved to make people laugh and laugh himself, almost always wearing “cheesy physics t-shirts,” telling equally cheesy jokes, especially puns and sharing web comics.

Tilley also advocated strongly for the things he believed in. According to Balaban, “he was very into politics and debating public policy,” for which “he always had well-thought out arguments,” Madigan added. A devout Christian, Tilley was also a member of the registered student organization UMassCru, the UMass Christian Fellowship.

Tilley’s love of tutoring and helping others learn stemmed from his desire to be a professor, and an adamant desire to reform the education system. Tilley had just learned the day before his death that he had been accepted into a top-ranked doctoral program in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was offered a teaching assistantship and full tuition waiver, according to his father James Tilley.

“He had all kinds of real talent,” Tilley’s father said in a phone interview, citing his remarkable ability to play music by ear and even to juggle. “He did a lot of things well. He had an amazing mind.”

Tilley’s father explained that professor Lori Goldner, who had worked with Tilley conducting research, recently sent him an email with testimonies from numerous members of the student body who all had amazing things to say about Tilley.

“James was an extraordinary human being who had a love of life and of learning that was impossible to miss,” Goldner wrote the Daily Collegian in an email. “He had a pure joy in science and learning that for many of us gets lost in the daily grind of problem sets, grading, grant writing … It is still impossible to believe that he is gone.”

Tilley’s father said that he is grateful to UMass because of the “tremendous opportunity” the University offered his son to conduct research “every semester he wanted to.”

Tilley is survived by his parents, James and Christine Tilley, and sister Kristen V. Tilley, according to his obituary in the Eagle-Tribune.

Calling hours will be Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Peabody Funeral Homes and Crematorium, located at 15 Birch St. in Derry, New Hampshire. A funeral service will be held on Thursday at 11 a.m. at Windham Bible Chapel, located at 14 Cobbetts Pond Rd. in Windham, New Hampshire.

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Shelby_Ashline.

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