Dedicated Gardener and Longtime Wicker Park Resident Richard Tilley Dies at 91

Richard Tilley in Wicker Park’s namesake park, spring 2015. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

WICKER PARK — Richard Tilley, a Wicker Park resident for more than 40 years and a talented gardener who played a key role in establishing the park’s volunteer-maintained gardens, has died. He was 91.

Born on June 26, 1926, in Wellingborough, England, Tilley died shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday at Presence Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital, according to Elaine Coorens, Tilley’s wife.

The cause of Tilley’s death is not yet known, said Coorens, an author and publisher of neighborhood news site, Our Urban Times.

Doug Wood, president of the Wicker Park Garden Club, described Tilley, who moved to Wicker Park in 1976, as “an incredible man” who did so much for Wicker Park’s namesake park.

“His gardens were the best in our neighborhood. For years he inspired people to create great gardens and to donate their time to develop our community to be the best. His endless, positive energy was inspiring to everyone he met. He influenced people by showing them how they could do anything!” Wood said.

An executive in the printing industry, in 1962 Tilley arrived in Chicago on his 36th birthday with one suitcase “and a lot of trepidation,” the World War II veteran told aldermen last July when he was honored by the City Council, Our Urban Times reported.

Tilley was drafted into the British army on his 18th birthday, though by the time he went through military training, the war in Germany had ended. He was deployed to the Far East in June 1945 and spent three years as a signalman “bashing out Morris Code” in India, keeping peace between the Hindus and Muslims, Tilley told Ald. Ed Burke (14th).

l-r: Tilley in the British Royal Army and working as a radio “signalman” during World Ward II. [Photos courtesy of Elaine Coorens]

Tilley worked for U.S.-based Royal Zenith the rest of his career until retiring in 1996 as Senior Vice President of Service for North America and Canada.

Tilley met Coorens through mutual friends in Lincoln Park and the couple, who married in 1976, moved to Wicker Park where they bought a greystone home with a large yard perfect for Tilley to showcase his gardening expertise. A weekly volunteer in the Wicker Park gardens, Tilley taught several gardening workshops for the Wicker Park Garden Club and wrote a column, “The English Gardener,” for Our Urban Times.

Tilley’s wit and expert insight shone in his columns, whether asking readers for help in identifying “a mysterious crop” of mushrooms with pink underbellies that had appeared overnight in one section of his lawn, or giving advice on how to plant, prune and care for hydrangeas.

“Richard loved his garden and was devoted to it and the Wicker Park Garden Club and the Wicker Park gardens, working in them weekly,” Coorens said, describing her husband as “the perfect English gentleman.”

Tilley was always impeccably dressed, possessed perfect manners and greeted everyone he knew emphatically and cheerfully, often with a twinkle in his eyes. He was a constant presence in Wicker Park, often seen dining or running errands or volunteering in the gardens.

“A true gentleman and someone who genuinely cared about his neighborhood,” said Ald. Joe Moreno (1st). “It was a privilege to honor him at City Council.”

Tilley dining at The Robey’s restaurant Cafe Robey on opening night. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

One of five siblings, three of whom (Margaret, Tom and Robert) died before him, Tilley is survived by a brother, David, Coorens and a wide circle of friends.

In accordance with his wishes, Tilley will be cremated and his ashes spread. A celebration of his life will be planned at a later date, Coorens said.

Richard Tilley in the park gardens in 2012. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]
Richard Tilley atop The Robey. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]