Edition: January 2002 - Vol 10 Number 01
Neil Tillotson, patriarch of the Tillotson Healthcare Corp., Bedford, NH, died Oct. 24 at the age of 102. His story is one of a man who liked to turn his avocations into viable businesses, said his son, Tom Tillotson, president and CEO of Tillotson.
Born in 1898, Tillotson was raised in the backwoods of Vermont. Before finishing high school, he went to Boston to learn a trade. Things livened up for him when he joined the service and was called to serve under General John Joseph Pershing along the Mexican border in 1914. The Mexican government had been overthrown the year before by a General Huerta, whom the United States refused to recognize. Ultimately, Pershing and his soldiers, including Tillotson, invaded Mexico to seize the bandit Pancho Villa, a mission they accomplished.
Following his Mexican adventures, Tillotson was hired as a research chemist (even though he had no formal training) by Hood Rubber Co., a manufacturer of tires, shoes, inner tubes, etc., based in Watertown, MA. At that time, a revolution in the manufacturing of rubber-based products was occurring. In years past, U.S. manufacturers had used imported dry rubber to make their goods, not the liquid latex that is used today. The reason was that rubber from Asia could not be transported in a liquid state to the United States, because the transportation was so slow. So, manufacturers would dissolve the dry rubber in a solvent when they were ready to use it.
But that was changing during Tillotson's years at Hood, and he was charged with discovering what kinds of products could be made from natural rubber latex. (One company, Brown Paper Co. in northern New Hampshire, had already begun using latex to make liquid-absorbent paper towels.)
In 1931, Tillotson struck out on his own, starting the Tillotson Rubber Company, also in Watertown. His first product: balloons. Prior to that time, balloons had been made from dry rubber, an expensive, time-consuming and environmentally unfriendly process. Latex speeded up the process, and made softer, easier-to-use balloons. Despite the hardships of the Depression, Tillotson made the company work.
As it had in 1914, war interrupted his work in the 1940s. When World War II broke out, the government redirected all natural rubber to the war effort. Tillotson had to shut down the balloon factory. Working for the War Board, he journeyed to South America to scout out natural rubber latex supplies in South America. While there, he became hooked on the idea of growing rubber in this hemisphere.
After the war, Tillotson jumped back in to manufacturing, and in the early 1950s entered the glove business by founding Best Manufacturing, which produced work gloves coated in latex. At about the same time, he helped start Textile Rubber and Chemical, which produced latex compound to be used by carpet manufacturers. Prior to that time, carpets were woven. Only by using an adhesive, such as latex, could loops of fiber be ''locked'' onto a backing.
In the early 1960s, Tillotson was looking for a technology or product to reinvigorate Tillotson Rubber Co. He found it in latex examination gloves. At that point, there were vinyl exam gloves and latex surgeons gloves, but not latex exam gloves. The reason is that they would have been too expensive to make, says Tom Tillotson. But Tillotson developed a very soft, pliable glove, which could fit multiple hand sizes, thus allowing him to avoid the cost of manufacturing gloves in half-size increments (as surgeons gloves were). The company has been making them since 1967.
With the advent of AIDS in the mid-1980s, the company geared up its U.S. production capabilities. But when the market plunged in the late 80s and early 90s, due to the influx of gloves made by offshore producers, Tillotson too found itself making more of its gloves in the Far East. Still, it retains a U.S. manufacturing base. And today, the company makes surgeons gloves in Dixville Notch (though surgeons gloves are a small part of Tillotson's overall product mix).
Tillotson turned other interests of his into profitable companies. In 1954, he bought the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, NH. Built one year after the Civil War ended, the Balsams sits on a 15,000-acre estate, and remains a popular vacation destination today. Dixville Notch became Tillotson's home as well as the location of his company's latex exam glove factory. (The town also has the distinction of being the first in the nation to cast its vote in the presidential primaries. Voters line up at midnight to do so.)
With a passion for sailing, Tillotson joined forces with Everett Pearson, founder of Pearson Yachts, in 1968 to form Tillotson Pearson Inc., manufacturer of yachts and catamarans. Its most popular boats were the so-called J-boats, including the J/24, a popular racing boat. Tillotson sold his interest in the company in 1992, but still makes J-boats under the company name of TPI.
Tillotson worked full-time until he suffered a stroke in June 2001. He is survived by his wife, Louise; two sons; two daughters; 22 grandchildren; 23 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.