Spring 2017 Corps Review | Back
Deborah Tillotson ’78, ’87 was the first person in her family to go to college. She was among the second class of women to join the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. She commissioned in the U.S. Air Force as a satellite engineer and turned that into a 40-year career in space and ground systems program management, engineering, development, and operations.
She credits her success to her education — a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in systems engineering — and the Corps’ lessons of teamwork and perseverance.
She gives to Virginia Tech and the Corps to inspire the next generation of engineers and to enable others to have similar educational experiences. Plus, she’s remained active on campus through recruiting, serving on various boards and committees.
After 30 years with General Electric and Lockheed Martin, Tillotson is now director for integration for Vencore (formerly The SI Organization), where she is responsible for acquisitions integration. She serves as lead of the Development Task Force of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Alumni (VTCCA) Board and is a member of the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100.
She lives in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Dan, an engineer and pilot. Their son, Ian Tillotson ’14, is a second lieutenant in the Air Force and currently in pilot training. He married 2nd Lt. Allison Laclede ’15 in December 2016.
Q: What was the first gift you made to Virginia Tech and why did you make it?
A: I made my first major gift to Virginia Tech in 1997, an academic scholarship to the Department of Mechanical Engineering. At that time, I had been asked to co-lead the Philadelphia/Wilmington area for the Campaign for Excellence, Virginia Tech’s first national fundraising campaign that generated $118 million and helped increase the value of assets held by the Virginia Tech Foundation from less than $8 million to more than $123 million. I was the first in my family to go to college. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in systems engineering, I wanted to give back and enable someone to have the kind of education that was part of what made me successful in my career. I was part of the second year of women in the Corps; it was before they enrolled women at the academies, and I wanted to serve in the Air Force in the area of space and rockets. At the time of my gift, I had recruited heavily at Tech for General Electric/Lockheed Martin, served on the Dean of Engineering’s Industry Advisory Board, and worked with Bev Watford to start an Industry Advisory Board for the Center for Engineering Excellence and Diversity. I didn’t know it then, but I was beginning a new phase of my understanding and application of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in my life and starting what would become a personal and family legacy.
Q: Why did you decide to fund an Emerging Leader Scholarship (ELS)?
A: Funding an ELS was part of my contribution to the Campaign for Virginia Tech, along with an Engineering Education Fund for the Hypatia and Galileo programs [living-learning communities offered for engineering majors]. My focus now spanned both engineering and the Corps, and my husband, a NC State alum, had been totally shanghaied as a Hokie by marriage. Our son had just enrolled as a cadet in Air Force ROTC majoring in aerospace engineering, and funding an ELS made a contribution that continued to help the Corps grow as we stretched to reach an enrollment of 1,000. I was part of the Dean of Students Parents Committee and began to serve on the VTCCA board shortly thereafter.
Q: What is your favorite memory from your time as a cadet?
A: My favorite memories include the pep rallies before football games where we started on Upper Quad and, led by a flaming “VT” and the band, proceeded in a pied-piper path through the Lower Quad, ending up in front of Dietrich Hall or on the Drillfield to cheer the team on for Saturday’s game. Making sails and spirit banners and cheering at the games themselves was an introduction to the Hokie Spirit that continues in our students and alumni today.
Q: If you could have dinner with any Corps of Cadets alumnus from any time who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: I’d have to say Charlie Cornelison ’67. Charlie really started me on the path of giving back and building a legacy with Virginia Tech. I remember we were both on the road traveling about 20 years ago and we met in a hotel lobby in Wilmington, Delaware, just off I-95 one Sunday morning. He was headed north, and I was headed south on business trips. We talked about his vision for Tech and the Corps and the baby steps I was taking as I started to conceptualize what it meant to step up in service to Tech and the Corps. It would be fun to have that conversation again and see if things had turned out as we hoped, but we lost Charlie at the 2015 Highty-Tighty reunion. I know he was proud of the work we did to raise the private portion seed money for the new Corps Leadership and Military Science (CLMS) Building. As the first opportunity for Corps alums to contribute to a more tangible brick and mortar structure, the CLMS and the two new dorms will change the face of Upper Quad and be a striking foundation for our Corps and ROTC programs that is long overdue. The heraldic design and the new museum space of the CLMS will highlight our past and envision the direction we want for our future. I’ve just recently taken on the Development Task Force Lead position in the VTCCA so I’ll be heavily involved in helping plan how the Corps contributes to our next major campaign. I like to think that Charlie is up there smiling on our efforts here and nudging us along the right path.