Nursing student’s tragic death leads to memorial fund endowment
The driver who hit and killed Wagner nursing student Ronald “R J” Tillman while he was bicycling home from campus on February 12 is still at large. In the meantime, Tillman’s family and friends, plus alumni who raised money decades ago in memory of another tragically slain Wagner nursing student, are coming together to create something good out of their heartbreak and sorrow.
Tillman was struck on Howard Avenue while heading toward Clove Road at about 9 p.m. on that Sunday evening. He had been studying in the library with his fellow students in Wagner’s accelerated bachelor’s degree program in nursing.
The 29-year-old from Syracuse, New York, had graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in film production and worked in that field, but he found it was neither as steady nor as satisfying as he expected, says his mother, Nancy Tillman. Influenced by a former roommate who was a nurse, he came to Wagner to complete a second bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“He loved it,” says Nancy Tillman. “I can’t tell you the phone calls we had where he told me how happy he was. He said, ‘Finally I found something I love. It’s something I know I want to do.’”
His fellow students and professors testified to his gifts as a nurse and his commitment to patient care. They raised $14,000 toward a memorial fund for R. J. Tillman at Wagner College. The money will be used for the R. J. Tillman Award, given annually to second-degree nursing students who exhibit deep caring, sensitivity, and concern for classmates and patients. The first award will be made in December.
In combination with another memorial fund for a Wagner nursing student, the Tillman Fund will reach the endowment level, allowing these annual awards to be given in perpetuity.
That fund memorialized Helen Surgan ’76, who was murdered on campus on November 7, 1974. In her memory, Pete Knudsen ’75, Bill Rehm ’76, and Howard Graeffe ’75 organized a walkathon and other events, raising $10,000 toward a scholarship.
Knudsen, who is both a trustee of the Helen Surgan fund and a member of the Wagner College Board of Trustees, endorses the addition of the Surgan fund to the Tillman fund. “I think it’s going to be more effective for the College and honor Helen’s memory,” he says, noting that only one scholarship was given from the Surgan fund.
Knudsen hopes that now more donors will designate their gifts to the Tillman Award. “This is a perpetual fund,” Knudsen says. “I think this is a really good target for those who appreciate the history and excellence of our nursing program.”