Super Senior: Tom Tiller

Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 5:25 PM EDT
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MONTGOMERY, Vt. (WCAX) - Eighty-four-year-old Tom Tiller journeys from his home in Essex to his oasis in Montgomery just about every day.

It’s 52 acres and a cabin, a place where the sounds are silence. “I come up here sometimes I’ll just get in this chair and just sit,” Tiller said.

The landscape reminds him of his native eastern Kentucky, but it’s a far cry from the hardships Tiller endured there. He was raised by his grandparents in a house with no indoor plumbing. “Our outhouse was down back,” he said. TP was a luxury. “And the Sears Roebuck catalog was there.”

When his grandfather died, it was up to his grandmother to feed the family on Social Security. “You stop and think about that -- $64 a month,” Tiller said. He says the family’s meat came from the woods.

Reporter Joe Carroll: So you hunted as a kid because you needed to.

Tom Tiller: Yeah, to eat. And I’m not joking... You know, people look at it and say, ‘Oh God, terrible.’ But if they talk to people who lived like that, they’d understand.

Reporter Joe Carroll: It was survival.

Tom Tiller: It was survival, exactly.

Tiller’s journey to Vermont started as a dare to join the U.S. Air Force. His friend Bobby Jack taunted him. “He said, ‘Well, you’re chicken if you don’t join.’ Well, we went in and signed up and he failed and I passed,” Tiller recalled.

After training in Texas, his orders were to go to the now-closed Ethan Allen Air Force Base. “We had to get the map out to figure out where Vermont was, and that was the truth,” TiIller said.

The next four years were the best of times. He got married, had two kids, and the Appalachian boy’s roots were firmly planted in the Green Mountains. After the service, he ran a service station and entered a sport where he would excel - race car driving. “I bought the car -- $50 for a ‘56 Pontiac standard shift,” Tiller said.

Number 77 became so good he had a nickname -- “The Kentucky Colonel.”

Reporter Joe Carroll: Describe your personality. Are you a tough guy?

Tom Tiller: Umm, only when someone stirs my feathers.

He blew away the competition in the late model division. “I got up to 4th in the nation one time,” Tiller said.

But the stresses of running a business at home and being on the road were too much. Tiller’s marriage also came to an end. “I was really, really depressed,” he said. One day, he was riding his motorcycle when he saw a for sale sign for the Montgomery camp. “It was kind of a lifesaver for me.”

These days, it’s a place to ponder. And those little critters he shot as a kid? “Today, I wouldn’t kill a squirrel if it got in my lap,” Tiller said.

Reporter Joe Carroll: You’ve spent most of your life in Vermont.

Tom Tiller: Of course I have, yeah.

Reporter Joe Carroll: Consider yourself a Yankee?

Tom Tiller: Oh yeah, I’m a Vermonter. I’m not a Yankee, I’m a Vermonter.

A true Vermonter defined perhaps not as where he was born, but as where plans to die. “My plot is down in this corner,” he points out during a final stop on our tour. “I want to look at it for a while yet.”