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Jon Dirk

Dirk Tillema was a gentle and caring man, who went out of his way to help others who were less fortunate than himself. A man without an enemy in the world, Dirk was never known to even raise his voice in anger. Dirk’s generosity of spirit, kind heart, and passion for music will live on in the hearts of all those fortunate enough to have called him a friend.

Ralph and Kathryn (Oium) Tillema’s second child was born on September 12, 1938. Although they named their son Jon, he would soon come to be known to family and friends by his middle name, Dirk. Dirk grew up with an older brother, Peter, and a younger sister, Kathy. Dirk’s father was a piano teacher, who taught at Milwaukee State Teachers College. His mother, Kathryn, worked in a battery factory during WWII, and later went on to the Milwaukee County Welfare Department, where she was a case worker.

Dirk was very talented musically, and loved playing the piano. Although he never learned to read sheet music, he nevertheless became an accomplished pianist, eventually composing his own pieces. After he graduated from Riverside High School, he went on to Milwaukee State Teachers College (which later became the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). He earned both his undergrad and master’s degree in psychology. Dirk also spent some time in the U.S. Army, serving as an MP.

Although Dirk had several romances as a young man, none of these developed into marriage. He did maintain several lifelong friendships, however, which were very meaningful to him. Some of his closest friends were Joseph Heil (a friend for over fifty years), Gordon Jenson (who shared Dirk’s passion for playing the piano), and his brother, Peter. Dirk had his share of trials and challenges in life, but his friendships gave him the strength to persevere during the tough times.

After Dirk finished his master’s degree, he held a variety of jobs, including a position at Jefferson Smurfit which lasted for many years. Later, he would work at and retire from Alton Box CO. Although none of these jobs were in his field of study, his classes would come in handy later on when he began mentoring foreign students. Dirk continued to live at home, where he cared for both of his parents as their health began to decline. His mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Dirk lovingly cared for her every need.

In his free time, Dirk loved listening to opera and going to concerts. He was also fascinated by German culture, and collected German helmets (along with anything else he could find). His niece, Laura, recalls fond memories of the days when she was growing up in the house with her mom, grandpa, and Uncle Dirk. Dirk liked to bribe his niece to make his lunches for work – one week she made a whole two dollars. When Laura had friends over for sleepovers, they would sleep on the floor in Dirk’s room, and he would wake them up at midnight so they could watch Elvira on TV.

Dirk was a generous man, who was always willing to help those less fortunate than himself. His brother, Peter, remembers a typical instance, which occurred when he and Dirk were eating at Lamb’s Farms in Illinois, a restaurant staffed by handicapped workers. After eating, Dirk left a $20 tip for the server when a $5 tip would have been more than generous.

When both his parents had passed away, Dirk was left with an empty house. He decided to use some of the space by renting rooms to Chinese and Taiwanese students. This project, which started out as a business venture, turned into years of wonderful friendships. Dirk treated his lodgers like family, and was a wise mentor to countless students. He enjoyed socializing with his students, often eating out or helping them with their English. Dirk enjoyed traveling, and visited some of his former students and their families in China and Taiwan.

Gentle, kind-hearted, and generous, Dirk was a big man with an even bigger heart. He will be deeply missed and lovingly remembered by his many friends and family members.

Jon Dirk Tillema died on September 7, 2012, at the age of 73. Dirk’s family includes his siblings, Peter Tillema and Kathy Sween; his nieces and nephews, Laura Sween Watson, Peter Tillema, Jr., Judy Gabower, David Tillema, and Peggy Russell; and his long-time friends and neighbors, including Joseph Heil, Jon and Anne Bales, and Douglas and Joyce Skinner.

Family and friends will gather at Wisconsin Memorial Park Chapel of the Flowers, 13235 W. Capitol Dr. on Saturday, Sept. 15, from 10 a.m. until the time of Funeral Services at 11 a.m. Please visit Dirk’s personal memory page at, where you can learn more about his life, share a favorite memory or photo, and sign the online guestbook.

Past Comments

Richard Phillips

I went to grade school with Dirk at the Campus Lab School at MSTC, and to Riverside High. We were the only boys in our class to go to East Division from State Teachers. I am sorry to hear of Dirk’s death. I am glad he had a good life.

Winnie Wang

We knew each other since Dirk’s visited Hong Kong in 1992. We shared a lot of life, thinking, even faith. Dirk is a gentle, patient man with caring heart! He usually says ‘Life is not easy’! Encouraged me to face to difficult days in past years. I will never forget him!

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