“When I was your age, I used to walk two miles through the snow to school every day.”
So many of us have heard a line like this, but few of us have known someone who lived it. Tillie Fairbairn was one of those people.
Tillie was born at home on June 21, 1935 to Alonzo and Margaret Ballard of Halcott Center, NY. Tillie and her six siblings grew up on their parents’ farm, surrounded by the lush, green mountains and meadows of the Catskills. In the winter, they would wade through deep snow for classes at Halcott’s one-room schoolhouse. In the summer, Tillie loved catching brook trout in the “crick” near her home, and going for long walks and picking blackberries along the way.
When she was a teenager, Tillie began dating the love of her life, Harper Fairbairn. The story of their first significant encounter happened not in the Catskills, but on a senior trip to Washington, D.C. One of Tillie’s friends, Marilyn, had recently had surgery. She needed to have her incision checked by a school nurse chaperoning a group from a neighboring town. Tillie and Marilyn went to the hotel where that group was staying, and asked one of the boys from the group to point them toward the nurse’s hotel room. That boy was Harper, and he decided to play a trick on the girls.
“He jokingly sent us to the wrong room and stood in the hall and was laughing when this grumpy old man came to the door,” Tillie recalled in an oral history of her life.
Harper “got a hum,” as he would say, out of the joke he had played on the girls. Happily for him, Tillie chose not to hold it against him. They soon began dating, and one day, he asked her to go for a ride with him to the top of a mountain.
“He stopped the car, and he took this little box out of his pocket,” Tillie said. “He had a ring in it, and he asked me if I would marry him. I said, ‘Yes!’”
After Tillie and Harper graduated – she from Fleischmanns Central School, and he from Margaretville Central School – they were married on February 7, 1954. They settled into their home in Fleischmanns, a community where they lived for decades, enjoying deep friendships with their neighbors. In February 1956, they welcomed their beloved daughter, Melanie Joy, into the world. They were overjoyed when their family expanded to include sons Gregg and Randy and daughter Genevieve.
Tillie had a tremendously giving spirit and enjoyed opening her home and cupboards to neighbors and friends. She was known for her “washboard” cookies, blackberry pie, and Pittsburgh potatoes, and loved making fudge and cookies for her grandchildren during the holidays. In recent years, Tillie also enjoyed spending time with her great-grandchildren, John Stephen Boyle and Madeline Harper Mead, who fondly referred to her as their “GG.” She would light up when Johnny and Maddie would hustle into her apartment with their arms stretched wide with big hugs for GG. Nearly three years ago, she was thrilled to welcome a third great-grandchild, Allison Rose Murad, whom she lovingly referred to as “the baby.”
Tillie was a tireless worker, and for many years she served as a unit secretary at Margaretville Memorial Hospital and Mountainside Residential Care Center. She was an active volunteer in her community, including with the Margaretville Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop.
Tillie was also a woman of deep faith. For many years, she attended the Fleischmanns Methodist Church, where she was known for coordinating huge suppers in support of the church. More recently, she attended the Methodist Church in Margaretville.
“I know the good Lord put me on this earth to help other people, and all my life I have tried to help other people,” Tillie said. “I just love doing things for other people.”
Tillie was a social butterfly who enjoyed bingo, travel, playing cards, and chatting on the phone with her wide circle of friends. She passed away on December 8 after a long illness, and leaves behind many people who loved her dearly, including Melanie and Stephen Yaekel; Gregg Fairbairn; Genevieve Rose Mckever; Randy Day; Freda Barley; Carole Haynes; Nancy Hewitt; Carly, Kyle and Madeline Mead; Tara, John and Johnny Boyle; Melissa, Micah, Joanna, Abigail, and Sarah Wyckoff; and Allison Rose Murad. Tillie is predeceased by her parents, Alonzo and Mildred Ballard; her beloved husband Harper Fairbairn; brother Edward Ballard, sisters Alice Bouton, Jane Bouton, and baby sister Katherine Ballard.
The funeral service will be private at the request of Tillie’s family, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made in Tillie’s honor to the United Methodist Church in Margaretville, NY. The family would like to express their gratitude to the staff at the Hospice Inn at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, NY. Their kind, supportive care of Tillie and her family in her final days was a great comfort to all. Funeral arrangements are under the direction of the E. B. Gormley Funeral Home 87 Main Street Phoenicia. You may share a special memory or condolence with the family on Tillie’s Tribute Wall at gormleyfuneralhome.com
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