Everyday Hero: Betty Tillman

Posted: June 16, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jennifer Mitchell

Name: Betty Hall Tillman

Title: Administrative director for the Center for Study of Public Choice

Years at Mason: 22

What She Does: Takes care of the center and everyone in it.

Years at Virginia Universities: 44. Tillman has worked with James Buchanan, founder of the center, since 1961. He hired her in July 1961 at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville just as he was leaving for Cambridge University as a Fulbright Visiting Professor for 1961-62. Tillman assumed responsibility for the center and began her work with Associate Director Warren Nutter, as well as the in-house professors and graduate students.

How She Got the Job: Tillman was going through a divorce and had three young children to raise, so she had to find full-time work. She had been doing some freelance typing for law students at the University of Virginia, its student legal research group, and the Virginia Law Review, which prompted her to apply for a job at the university. “The first interview they set me up for was with Dr. Buchanan. I hadn’t really worked anywhere in 12 years, but some of the law students had written letters of recommendation [for me]. Lucky for me, soon after I got home I received a call that, lo, and behold, I got the job!”

On Being a Working Mom: When Tillman went back to work in 1961, her youngest son was only a year old. “My family had moved from Schuyler, Virginia, to Charlottesville. My children and I were living with them, so I could just get up and go to work since my mother and sister took care of the baby for me. It would have been difficult to pay someone, because I started with a salary of about $200 a month!”

Betty Tillman
Betty Tillman
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Her Favorite Place to Work: Although she has worked for three different universities in Virginia—UVA, Virginia Tech, and George Mason—Tillman says that Mason holds a special place in her heart. “I dearly love being here. Everybody, from the president all the way down, has been so cooperative and really wonderful to work with. I have many, many friends from my associations here. I feel very blessed for having the opportunity to be at Mason, and find so much happiness in being able to just be a part of the whole operation.”

Finding a Home for the Center: When the center was at Virginia Tech, it was located in the university’s former president’s house—a grand home atop a hill overlooking the duck pond. When the center moved to George Mason in 1983, it was first housed in the former St. George’s Methodist Church building, currently Carow Hall and still the main center of operations. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Tillman discovered that the former president’s house on campus across the road from the center was empty, and since she had always wanted to keep Buchanan’s papers and collections in Virginia, she, along with Bob Tollison, the center’s director at that time, lobbied the university to give the center occupancy of the house for Buchanan’s archival home. The center raised funds to make renovations needed for library/memorabilia space, along with a conference/seminar room for programs. “This house [renamed Buchanan House] is just ideal. After having the former president’s house in Blacksburg, needless to say, when I got the opportunity, I jumped on it!”

Her Favorite Parts of the Job: “Every day is memorable because I love what I do. I enjoy working with the administration and the contact I have with other departments, the graduate students, and the faculty. I thoroughly enjoy the visiting scholar program as well. You never know what’s going to come up in the next 30 minutes—I’ll be sitting there doing something, and all of a sudden the phone will ring and someone from China or Brazil is calling. Every aspect of my job from the time I get here in the morning to the time I leave at night is fulfilling—I just love it!”

On Having a Nobel Prize-Winning Boss: “Working for Dr. Buchanan has opened doors for me that would have never been possible otherwise. He’s so appreciative of everything I do, and he trusts me to kind of hold everything together.”

Most Memorable Time at Mason: When Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986, and Tillman traveled with him and his wife to Stockholm, Sweden, for the ceremony. “The awards ceremony was so exciting for me because I was so proud that he had been selected for the prize. At the formal dinner afterwards, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Nobel Prize recipients being escorted by dignitaries and descending down the beautiful stairway to the head table with the king and queen of Sweden. To be with the Buchanans for Nobel Week, and to be able to see him accepting the Nobel award is something I shall never forget.”

One of Her Favorite Possessions: Some years ago, James Miller, one of Buchanan’s former PhD students from UVA and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, missed Tillman’s birthday celebration because he was visiting Reagan at his home in California. Miller happened to tell Reagan that he was missing a birthday celebration for one of his favorite people. Reagan signed a photograph for Tillman—complete with birthday wish—for Miller to bring back to her. “I just love that he’s sitting on a horse in that photograph! He was such a wonderful man.”

On Retiring: Tillman hadn’t even considered retirement until a recent university-wide memo asked those who were retiring within five years to attend a workshop. “I thought, well, in two years I’m going to be 80, so I guess I’d better go to that workshop. But I don’t want to leave Mason; I have an awful lot to do before I retire. There is a lot of work to do with the archival materials and other things that I feel need to be done. I’ve been blessed with good health, but at my age, it can change in a day. So you just make the most of each day and keep forging ahead.”

What People Say about Her:

“Betty Tillman is the glue—or cement—that makes the center work. She’s jokingly known as the ‘First Lady of Public Choice.’ I go to the European Public Choice conferences, and everybody either knows Betty or is talking about Betty! She has a very cheerful personality and can make any situation work and tie people together. She gives people a feeling of family. Betty is so important in making the whole Public Choice effort work; if she weren’t around, it absolutely would not be as successful as it has been.”

—Paal Foss, visiting scholar, Oslo Business School, Norway

“I simply cannot imagine the Public Choice Center and the [Mason] Department of Economics without Betty Tillman. Her charm is exceeded only by her knowledge; her good humor only by her dedication; and her warmth only by her absolute indispensability to our faculty and students. I want to clone her!”

—Donald Boudreaux, chair, Department of Economics

“The center has a family atmosphere thanks to Betty Tillman, better known as ‘Momma Betty.’ Betty is an inspiration to everyone she comes in contact with. She greets you with a big hug and makes you feel as though you’ve known her all your life. Betty is not only my supervisor, but she is also my friend, and I love her dearly. She is the ambassador for Public Choice and an asset to George Mason University.”

—Janet Byrd, administrative and program specialist, Center for Public Choice

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