Al LaPan-Tillson Retires Following Forty Years of Making a Difference

Al LaPan
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
January 17, 2020

Student Post Office Supervisor Allen “Al” LaPan-Tillson has been at Colby since August 1979. Over the years, some met him when they stopped by for mail. Some got to know him through working with him. Others learned about him through his 1001 Smiles Toy Drive, which he managed for more than two decades. Colby Magazine staff writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 sat down with LaPan-Tillson to reflect on his years at Colby as he retires from the College Jan. 17, 2020. 

So, 40 years at Colby. How did it go? 

It’s gone very quickly. I can’t imagine that it has been 40 years. But sitting down and thinking about my first day, there are lots of memories, lots of memories. Some good, some bad. [Laughs]

So you started working as a switchboard supervisor and then you’ve been working at the post office for 25 years. 

The switchboard was fun. … Well, let me tell you. We were so antiquated with our phone system that we had an old cord board. And so we had 17 lines in and 17 lines out. That’s all you had. Only the department chair and secretary had phones. No other faculty. Dorms had only hall phones. … And it was fun trying to catch the students who rewired the phones so they could have a phone in their room. Many times the technician would come up and rip out two or three hundred feet of cord. … And I had one father called me and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with your phone system, but my kid has called me every night for extended conversations.” So anyway, we went to that kid’s room and guess what? He had rewired the phone. [Laughs] So, you know, it wasn’t malicious. It was just creative. And I love that. 

When you started working at the post office, you became much closer to the students. 

Much, much. I got involved with their lives, which was an absolute treat. I had them for dinner, we went out, not to drink. I don’t think we ever drank, but, oh maybe a little bit. [Laughs] But they were the reason I was here. I mean, if you knew the details of what they would tell me, it was just wonderful to be, what’s the word, a sounding board, to offer advice such as one, in particular, was confused about careers. And I said, “you know, your parents are all loving and things like that, but it’s going to be your life. You’re going to have to work at that job for 50 years.” And then he followed my advice. That’s the privilege. That’s the privilege of knowing that they feel so comfortable that they tell you their deepest secrets.

You’ve had so many students and each one is different from one another, but you managed to connect with all of them in meaningful ways. What is your secret?

I don’t know. I mean, I just care for them. I had one student who chastised me because I would refer to my employees, “Oh, my kids are here” and that sort of thing. He was like, they’re not your kids, blah, blah, blah. So anyways, he became a teacher at a school and he brought a busload of students up here. And he says, “I’m up here with my kids.” And I said, “What?” [Laughs] And then he said, “Oh, I realize now.” Because you care about them. Some not too deeply, but it’s some others that you know for life. Some you grow apart from, that sort of thing.

How many students do you think you’ve had? 

I have crossed paths with, you figure, there were 1,600 here the first year that I was here. And every year since at least 450, so that’s 39 years times to 450 plus 1,600. That’s a lot of kids. I had somebody the other day who happened to be on campus. … She came over, she said, “I want to thank you.” … That was really nice. So she should have seen [it] on the announcements that I was retiring. I just had an email from the Czech Republic wishing me the best. 

You had a lot of international students, too, and you became part of their family here. 

Yes, at one point, I had five Nepalis working for me at the same time. And the funny thing is I still hear from them. And this was 10 or more years ago. Unbelievable. 

You not only supported them here, but your support and connection often went beyond Colby.

Well, you know, this is an interesting thing that happened. I had a young lady that was a student here. She was here literally, at that point, for like a thousand dollars a year. That was her contribution. Other than that, she was on scholarship. And so after she graduated, she went to work for a medical concern. And so we didn’t hear from each other. Then she came to visit, and she tells me that she is a doctor now and that she’s helped send several of her siblings to med school. They’re all doctors. And that was a $4000 investment. That’s it. So that’s a success story. … But we’ve had many, many like that. So many kids stand out. I’ve got people who are museum curators. I’ve got people who are geologists. Yeah, that’s just wonderful, wonderful. Well, I always try to say to the seniors, “Thank you for being a part of my life for four years.” And then I’ll say to the parents, “I’ve had them for four years. They’re yours now.” I had one parent thank me. He said, “We loved [the] empty nest.”

It sounds like you’ve collected lots of memories. 

Oh, yeah. What my aim was to be a friend. A surrogate parent, many other times. The things I could tell you the kids have gone through that we’ve shared. And that’s an honor and a privilege when they come to you and bare their soul. And that’s then, of course, one of the biggest honors that I’ve ever had was being [an] advisor to The Bridge [for five years]. The only non-degreed person to hold the honor. And the kids had told the president, we want him, or we don’t want anybody. So that was a nice experience. 

Any other highlights? 

I’ve seen second generations. They’ll come to the counter and say, “You remember me?” and most times you do. “Well, I’m bringing my daughter today or bringing my son today.” And then you go, “Oh god.” Fortunately, I’ll never see the third generation, thank goodness. But second generations, many of them. Many, many, many, many. 

How many people would get to see this! 

Exactly. Exactly. 

Any words of wisdom to your students? 

As I tell lots of people when they graduate, if you can’t make a million, make a difference. Fifty percent of you or more are going to be in careers you never thought you would be in. Not to be ashamed of that. And if you end up being a plumber. Guess what? When a professor needs a plumber, he doesn’t call another professor. He calls a plumber. And you can make just as much money and have just as honorable position as, you know, someone with Ph.D. The hardest thing here at Colby is being a non-degreed person in a degreed atmosphere or an environment. 

You sure made a difference. 

I hope so. … I never thought I’d retire. Never. I never planned it. I have some back problems, walking problems, that sort of thing. But that means I can’t do my job fully. And that’s not fair to the College if I can’t perform fully. 

Do you have any plans for your after-Colby life? 

No, not really. Probably fight with my husband. [Laughs] 

And the cats? 

And the cats, right. 

Read a previous Colby Magazine Q&A with LaPan-Tillson online here

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