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In Memoriam: Deborah Ruth Tillotson ’78, ’87

Debbie Tillotson ’78, ’87
Debbie Tillotson ’78, ’87

Debbie Tillotson ’78, ’87 was a friend, a philanthropist, and a partner.

Tillotson of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, died at home surrounded by family on June 19, 2020. She was 63.

She was a trailblazer from a young age, one of the first girls to attend an all-boys technical high school and the first in her family to attend college.

Tillotson always credited her success to her Virginia Tech education and the Corps of Cadets’ lessons of teamwork and perseverance.

From left, Debbie, Ian, and Dan Tillotson pose in front of an aircraft.
Debbie, Ian, and Dan Tillotson after Ian finished a portion of his pilot training in January 2017 at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma.

She graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering as part of the second class of women to graduate from the Corps. She commissioned into the U.S. Air Force as a satellite engineer.

During her time in the Air Force, she was a key member in the early development and testing of GPS satellites. She was in charge of the design and testing of electrical and thermal control systems, leading to the launches of Satellites 3 through 7.

After serving four years, she went on to work for General Electric, Lockheed Martin Space Division, the SI Organization, and Vencore, turning her Air Force service into a 40-year career in space and ground systems program management, engineering, development, and operations.

General Electric provided her the opportunity to become a double alumna of Virginia Tech, and she received a master’s degree in systems engineering in 1987.

The family poses for a photo in Lane Stadium with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands (second from left)

The Tillotson family poses for a photo in Lane Stadium with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands (second from left)

She became a more active alumna in 1997 with her first gift to a scholarship in mechanical engineering.

“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,” she wrote for an article in the fall 2017 Corps Review.

At the time, she was recruiting heavily at Virginia Tech for General Electric/Lockheed Martin and served on the Dean of Engineering’s Industry Advisory Board. She worked with Bevlee Watford to start an Industry Advisory Board for the Center of Engineering Excellence and Diversity.

She went on to serve multiple organizations at Virginia Tech, including the College of Engineering Committee of 100, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Alumni (VTCCA) Board as the lead of the Development Task Force, as well as on the VTCCA EXCOM board as the financial officer and as co-chair of the commandant’s Campaign Action Group.

“Debbie was a wonderful addition to the VTCCA board. She quickly embraced the fundraising committee and helped it with metrics to keep track of it progress,” said Chairman J Pearson ’87. “She volunteered to take over for me as task force chair as I moved on to become chairman without hesitation. When I asked her to become the VTCCA financial officer as well as task force chair for development, she was excited about the challenge.

“Debbie displayed great leadership and never failed to attend our meetings while suffering through the treatments of cancer,” Pearson said. “She cannot be replaced.”

Tillotson was well known in this position, influencing and impacting hundreds of cadets in not only scholarship opportunities but also in the construction projects that continue to revitalize Upper Quad.

Her passion, hard work, leadership, and unstinting integrity and loyalty have been an inspiration to her family, including her husband, Dan Tillotson; her son, Ian Tillotson ’14, now an F-16 pilot in the Air Force; and her daughter-in-law, Allison (Laclede) Tillotson ’15, an Air Force intelligence officer.

“Who knew that when I graduated in ’78 that [Virginia] Tech would be still affecting my life in so many ways?” Debbie Tillotson said last year. “I serve because Tech and the Corps hold a piece of my heart. I give my time and talent to work with awesome people who lift each other up and make spectacular things happen. I give of my treasure because I didn’t get here on my own. I have a responsibility to leave a legacy that makes things better than I found them and hold out a hand to help those less fortunate than I am and help bring about the next generation of Tech leaders.”