Neil Avrill Tilkens

1927 - 1999

Neil Tilkens, an accomplished pianist, taught music at two Seventh-day Adventist colleges and at George Washington University in a career that spanned 42 years. He also worked as a church musician at the beginning of his career, playing organ and/or directing choirs.

Neil was born in Berrien Springs, Michigan, on March 19, 1927, and was raised near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one of three children and the younger of two sons of Raymond Henry and Bernice Minetta Cole Tilkens. He started piano lessons at an early age, studying with a Ms. Mercier, a teacher he later described as being superb. Following graduation from the high school in Ormo, Wisconsin, in 1945, he enrolled at Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, and then transferred to Washington Missionary College, now Washington Adventist University, at the end of two years.

At WMC, because of his exceptional ability on piano, arrangements were made for him to study piano at Catholic University with Emerson Meyers. In his final two years as a student at WMC, Tilkens taught lessons and, immediately as he graduated in 1950, was hired by the college to teach and perform full-time.

In 1951 he married Florence Rosalind Krum, who, though musical and a pianist and organist, completed the RN (registered nurse) program at the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital, later Washington Adventist Hospital, located on the WMC campus and later a B.S. in nursing at the college. She subsequently completed a master's degree in nursing at Catholic University.

Florence had served as a church musician, and in the early years of their marriage she and Neil frequently performed piano/organ programs for churches. She also served as a church musician in the early years of their marriage. Through the years, the Tilkenses had a number of students who, lacking financial resources, lived in their home so that they could attend college.

Neil completed a master's degree at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, now College of Performing Arts, and then enrolled in a doctoral program at Catholic University. In 1955 he accepted an invitation to teach at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he stayed until 1957. In his last year at UC, he served as chair of the department and then left to resume teaching at WMC and to continue graduate study at CU. Although he completed all class work at CU, he did not write a dissertation, choosing instead to continue to concertize extensively, an activity he enjoyed.

After teaching at WMC, renamed Columbia Union College in 1961 and more recently, Washington Adventist University, for fifteen years and serving as chair of the program briefly near the end of his time there, Tilkens was invited in 1967 to teach theory at George Washington University, a position he would hold for the next 25 years. He accepted the position because it required only nine hours of teaching each week, which gave him a freer schedule and allowed him to perform extensively.

He was very influential in the Maryland State Music Teachers Association, serving on its board for more than 34 consecutive years. He was its newsletter editor for seven years and its president from 1971 to 1973. He served a little more than the usual two-year term because his predecessor had had to resign early in 1971 to assume the national presidency of the Music Teachers National Association.

During Tilken's presidency, the Student Activities Program and Certification Program were expanded and Andreas Makris, National Symphony Orchestra member and composer, was commissioned to write a composition for MSMTA. Tilkens performed and gave workshops at many MSMTA conventions and was a guest lecturer for numerous local chapters of the association.

Neil taught for 42 years before retiring in 1992, even though he had been having health problems for the last six years. He continued to perform and be active musically for the last six years of his life until a year before his death from cancer, on October 1, 1999, at age 72.

There are two music scholarship awards at CUC which honor the Tilkens family. The first honors Neil's mother, Bernice Tilkens, who urged her children to obtain an education, and the second honors the work and memory of her son.


Sources: Interview, Florence Tilkens, 2008; MSMTA and CUC websites; Florence died in 2015.