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Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

The late Timber Dick's children are carrying on a brilliant family legacy that includes Nancy Dick and Tom Lantos.

There's always room for one more at the Tillemann-Dicks' dinner table.

Armed with fine silver and blue china, Shiloh Benson Tillemann-Dick, eighteen, carefully sets the lace-draped table, which is large enough for a corporate boardroom. His eleven-year-old brother, Zenith Wisdom, meanwhile, wrestles Nordik, the family's Great Pyrenees, into a side room where the volatile beast can't wreak so much havoc.

Out from the kitchen glides Charity Sunshine, their 24-year-old sister, holding aloft a heaping serving bowl of pasta she just pulled together. Under the soft glow of the dimly lit crystal chandeliers, noodles are ladled onto plates and passed around to Annette, the prettily perfect children's mother, at the head of the table, and her giggling youngest daughters, Mercina Grace, sixteen, and Gloriana Willow, fourteen.

Timber Dick became an inventor at a young age.
Timber Dick became an inventor at a young age.
Annette Tillemann-Dick home-schooled all eleven children at the family home.
Annette Tillemann-Dick home-schooled all eleven children at the family home.
The Tillemann-Dick family operates in a controlled form of chaos.
The Tillemann-Dick family operates in a controlled form of chaos.

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For much more on the Tilleman-Dick family, including Charity singing show tunes, the design of the IRIS engine and a slide show of family adventures, click here.

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Another dish goes to Abdul Salem, the Tillemann-Dicks' latest foreign exchange student (one of about 150 the family has hosted over the years) who eyes it suspiciously and begins furiously fiddling with his electronic pocket translator, struggling for an understandable query over the din of chattering voices. After several failed attempts — "peek?" "pink?" — the family grasps what he's getting at: Is there pig in the food?

"No, no!" cries Annette. As she had assured Abdul when he arrived from Libya a few days before, he wouldn't have to worry about defying his Muslim faith by eating pork. As followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the family doesn't eat meat — or partake in alcohol or coffee, for that matter — since they are all discouraged in Mormon doctrine.

She can't blame Abdul for being leery, though, says Annette, laughing. The day after he'd been told about the family's food restrictions, he'd opened the refrigerator to discover two colossal, succulent hams — remnants from the recent funeral.

So, what is in the pasta?

Well, explains Charity with her distinctive effervescence, the meal's based on a song she wrote for her latest composition, Facebook: The Musical. And with little prompting she launches merrily into the piece, and her remarkable soprano voice — one that's been heard on professional opera stages around the world — fills the room:

One part ricotta,

Some thyme and soft goat cheese, with dried porcinis, some garlic and white wine

Mixed all together with some linguini

Or spinach tortellini

Will be so sublime ah ah ah ah!

Charity is looking for constructive criticism, as she'll be off to Los Angeles next week to pitch the musical to potential patrons. But that doesn't mean that this big, white eight-bedroom house on West 46th Avenue will be any quieter. Aside from the five siblings here tonight, Annette's other six children are all scheduled for Denver stopovers, bringing with them tales that suggest they're angling for Tillemann-Dick world domination (see sidebar).

For instance, Liberty Belle, twenty, will soon be arriving from Baltimore, where her advanced studies in the history of science, medicine and technology have barely been slowed by the fact that her foot was recently run over by a car. With her will be her 22-year-old brother, Corban Israel, though he'll only be around for a few days before he heads to China on assignment for a global strategic communications firm. Then Kimber Rainbow, the oldest daughter at 28, will take time off from her Washington, D.C., public-relations job to spend the summer in Denver. Her husband, David (whom they all love, whispers Annette, even though he's a Republican), has already arrived, bringing with him their pet Yorkies and two-week-old puppy, which have already blended into the menagerie of dogs, birds and other creatures populating the grand mansion. Eventually, 26-year-old Levi Mills and 29-year-old Tomicah Sterling should be stopping by, just as soon as the former takes a break from his research for Pulitzer Prize-winning economic writer Daniel Yergin and the latter gets away from his duties as a staffer for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Last but not least, there will certainly be a visit or two by Dulcia, the Tillemann-Dicks' adopted daughter from Honduras, who's either 38 or 39 — no one knows for sure.

This evening is hectic enough as the dinner conversation bounces erratically here and there and different voices jockey for attention. One minute, someone is explaining the macrobiotic diet recommended by dear friend Dennis Kucinich; the next, someone else is chortling about a Samoan village chief, another acquaintance, who terrified the children by promising to hold a luau and serve up the pet potbellied pig they once owned.

Before long, someone brings up their father, Timber Dick, who died on April 10 from injuries sustained in a car accident. There's talk of the strange foods Timber cooked up as a child, like Cap'n Crunch Cake and Aspen Bark Bacon, much to the chagrin of his mother, Nancy Dick, who survived the ordeal and went on to become Colorado's first female lieutenant governor. There's guffawing about all the head injuries Timber suffered growing up, one cracked skull after another that never seemed to temper the cerebral intensity between his thinning hair and thoughtful, bespectacled eyes. And there are recollections, too, of the sacrifices he made for his family, like more or less giving up his beloved barbecue ribs when it was decided the clan would become vegetarians.

"He was such a good sport," says Annette, shaking her head with a smile. He went along with one family escapade after another, the steadfast anchor in the middle of the magnificent pandemonium that is the Tillemann-Dicks.

Timber helped her home-school all eleven children and still found time to serve as bishop of their church ward, write a self-published autobiography titled With One Heart, and run — unsuccessfully — for Denver City Council. He edited the kids' college-application essays to places like Regis and Yale University when each was fourteen or fifteen. Since no regular house or automobile could handle them all, he scraped enough money and ingenuity together to buy and refurbish this once-dilapidated estate and converted a school bus into the family vehicle so he could haul them from one end of the continent to the other.

And now he's gone.

Though not really gone, notes Annette, as the kids pass around licorice from Budapest. Take, for example, the letter that she recently discovered while going through Timber's papers. He'd started writing it en route to the Far East several years ago. An inventor by trade, he was off to pitch one of his many gizmos, an instrument that was part hammer, part tape measure and part fifteen or twenty other tools.

Timber never finished the letter, and no one had known about it until Annette happened upon it. "I can see Daddy smile. He's so happy we found it," she says beaming to her children, several of whom shift slightly in their seats. Then she begins to read: "My beloved family, this letter is a testament of sorts, even to me.... Whenever I leave, or someone in the family leaves, there is the thought we may not be reunited in this life."

"Things can change in a moment. And it's easy to believe we are alone or unappreciated," Annette reads. But the family must keep strong, continues the letter, it has to believe: "We must see His hand at work, even when things go terribly wrong."

Annette stops reading and looks around the table. "I am so conscious of what he wrote," she whispers in awe. "That things happen for a reason."

For the first and only time all night, the table is silent.


Oh, you have to hear about the rocket engine!" exclaims Annette, her striking sapphire eyes sparkling. Her petite figure is perched gracefully on a stately couch in the parlor, as her youngest, Zenith, serves homemade iced tea, just what this warm spring afternoon calls for.

As the story goes, two somber government types showed up at Nancy Dick's Aspen door one winter day in early 1963 and handed her a letter addressed to President John F. Kennedy — with her return address on it.

"Dear Mr. President," the missive read, "Our country has a big problem. We must get to the moon before the Russians! Regular rockets will take too long and use too much fuel. I have plans for an atomic powered rocket engine. It is the most powerful engine ever made by man! I will contact you again soon. Signed, Mister X."

The FBI wanted to find this Mister X, so Nancy sternly trotted out her eight-year-old son, Timber, his leg cast from one of the many broken limbs he'd suffered since moving to Colorado from Cleveland with his family seven years earlier. Timber sheepishly admitted he'd sent the letter — but didn't surrender his detailed rocket-engine drawings, which were hidden among the Popular Science magazines and model spaceships in his room.

From an early age, Timber had a predilection for tinkering, an obsession with figuring out how to make things more efficient, more elegant and, more often than not, faster. Since he finished his high-school coursework early, he spent his senior year building a steam-powered automobile. With the help of his brother, he purchased an Italian racing motorcycle, which they fiddled with and raced up Independence Pass, following in the footsteps of their father, Howard, who with his wife used to race a 1952 MG-TD sports car up mountainsides until he was killed in an unrelated car accident with a drunk driver when Timber was five.

"On occasion, he gave his mother heart failure," says Nancy. "I never, never, never thought of him as eccentric, but maybe he was."

Through it all, he managed to avoid additional run-ins with the law — except for the time the authorities caught him making moonshine in the school science lab. They let him off with a warning.

"He was so intent on making the world a better place," says Annette as afternoon sunlight filters through the parlor, casting lazy amber rays upon the photo on the windowsill of Charity performing a duet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, over the grand piano where the family spends evenings engaged in sing-alongs. Would you like a chocolate? she offers distractedly. Timber loved chocolate, by the way. But where was she? Oh, yes, Timber's childhood. Sure, he was a little different, but so was she. "He was a great match for me. We were both a bit unconventional."

That match seemed far from certain when this spirited blonde met the lanky sophomore at a Yale function in 1976. She was in the divinity school, pursuing her second master's degree. He'd already flunked out of New College of Florida and was only at Yale because of an academic turnaround and a convincingly plaintive seven-page application letter. She was reading the Bible; he was a bit tipsy. When he introduced himself as "Timber Dick," she felt like responding, "And my name's Cinderella." (Though she swears she didn't grasp his moniker's giggle-worthy connotations.)

None of their differences stopped Timber from falling hard. He'd always been intrigued by dynamic forces, about fashioning order from chaos, and in Annette he found a force of nature demanding all of his orderliness and rationality.

He pursued her until she felt the same about him — but that still left her father. Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew, hadn't escaped a Nazi labor camp in 1944 and scraped together a new life in San Francisco just to see his princess with some shiftless punk, which Lantos made clear with all the formidable passion that would later mark his nearly thirty-year career in Congress. While their relationship survived his wrath, there was another complication. Annette, following in the footsteps of her mother, converted to Mormonism after experiencing an overwhelming feeling one night that the religion had the power of truth, and she would only marry someone who shared her faith.

Timber had always been a spiritual person, one who believed in divine order, but he'd never had a formal religion. Furthermore, to his friends and family, the rigid belief structures and conservative nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed at odds with his and Annette's open-minded attitudes and political liberalism.

"I don't know whether he would have become a Mormon if he had not fallen so deeply for Annette," says his mother. "Though he gave it a tremendous amount of thought. It was not a quick decision."

The Mormon church at first didn't seem like a great fit for him, adds his brother Justin. "I think it fit his needs. But I think in some ways, he was conflicted in his needs. Being such a rational person, it was difficult for him to make that change. He had one urge to find a spiritual practice in his life. He had another innate predilection for rationality."

Despite other people's questions, Timber forswore his few vices and delved headlong into Mormonism. That led the way to the wedding chapel — or, more precisely, the Washington, D.C., Mormon temple, the nearest to Yale — where, in March 1978, the two were sealed together for time and all eternity. Annette took Timber's last name as well as that of her maternal grandfather, Sebastian Tillemann, who was killed in the Holocaust.

In fact, says Annette as the parlor's soft afternoon hues begin to fade, they marked their thirtieth anniversary this past March with a breakfast concocted by the kids and a special visit to their Denver temple. For her, it was a much-needed distraction from the death of her father a few weeks earlier; little did she know that tragedy would strike again so soon. "I remember saying to Timber, 'This is such a wonderful moment in our lives. We have had thirty amazing years. I believe the next thirty will be even more amazing.' I'm baffled, because I really had this sense that we had this future ahead of us."

Tears well up, but only for a moment. Annette won't let herself go there — for her kids' sake, for her own sake, and for Timber. As her husband once told her, "You've just got to hold on to the things you believe. The minute you let go, you'll slide down into an abyss, and you may not be able to climb back out."

So it's best to compartmentalize, to focus on the happy memories, like the birth of Tomicah, their first son, the winter before Timber graduated from Yale with a bachelor's and a master's in business administration. Sure, Timber ended up delivering the baby himself in their back seat on the wintry Connecticut roads on way to the hospital while their two dogs clambered all over them — but other than that, it was perfect.

At the time, they both knew it wouldn't be their last child. Annette had made it very clear she wanted a big family, to replace the relatives she had lost in the Holocaust. Timber had agreed — "He was such a good sport about it!"

After all, how many more children could there be?


Was that a grand slam? It looks like five kids are running around the bases."

Kimber, 28, gazes quizzically in the warm summer dusk at the Little League game transpiring in fits and starts on this baseball diamond in Barnum Park in west Denver, then turns with mock annoyance to her sixteen-year-old sister, Mercina, who's sitting in the metal bleachers next to her. "You're getting peanuts in my purse!"

The Tillemann-Dick kids aren't the best at sports — among the abundant honors strewn about their house, there are fewer than a dozen athletic trophies — but they do excel at sideline enthusiasm. "I want a hot dog!" hollers eleven-year-old Zenith, sitting with his Little League teammates in the fenced-in dugout by the field. "With ketchup and mustard?" Shiloh, eighteen, bellows back from the bleachers as he rummages through the baskets they brought crammed with sodas and peanuts and Costco-sized condiments and Hostess cakes to find the homemade vegetarian hot dogs. Next to him, Gloriana is enjoying a Twinkie, the first the fourteen-year-old says she'd had in years, having for the moment put down her copy of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which she started last night after finishing a Dostoyevsky novel.

"That ball hit a kid in the head!" exclaims Kimber, giggling at the on-field antics as she gives husband David a shoulder massage with one hand and talks on her cell with her brother Levi, calling from Washington, D.C., on the other. "Ooh, I just want to coddle that poor little child," pipes in Liberty, before grimacing at a snarky comment made by her boyfriend, Gabriel, who's spending the summer singing opera at the Aspen Music Festival. "Oh," the twenty-year-old snaps at him, "go sing an aria!"

Because of Timber's death, there are fewer goings-on than usual, though the family is still operating under an agenda that's more befitting of a global conglomerate than a household. For the past few weeks, Annette's been in Israel and then Hungary to attend memorial events for her father. She just flew back, meeting Charity, Levi and Tomicah in D.C., to help prepare for Lantos's posthumous receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The rest of her children, other than the Beijing-based Corban, plan to meet her there.

And to think Annette was afraid of how the kids would turn out after she started home-schooling them in 1982. She made that decision partly because she knew school administrators were wrong when they told her Tomicah wasn't ready to enroll in kindergarten, and partly because she had an inkling that she and Timber could handle the task themselves. Annette, armed with her teacher's certificate, threw herself into the endeavor, turning baking into fraction lessons; installing blackboards around the house; speaking French, Spanish, Hebrew and Hungarian around the dinner table; and talking Dante after breakfast. But still, every now and then, she'd wake up fearfully in the middle of the night. "Honey, I've got to stop," she'd tell Timber. "I know they're not learning anything." She stopped worrying so much when her children started getting into Yale and Oxford and White House internship programs not long after they hit puberty.

While it certainly didn't hurt to have one grandparent in Congress and another in the Colorado lieutenant governor's office, even connections like that only took the kids so far. "Through no apparent organization whatsoever, we learned how to function in the real world," says Kimber. "And, kind of surprisingly, it all turned out all right."

While the tribe may be more knowledgeable of NPR than HBO and more comfortable at diplomatic cocktail parties than high-school keggers, they do okay for themselves when they head off into the world beyond the big white house. After all, for them childhood has been one big social hour. Remember the time there were 26 people staying in the house at one time, asks Mercina, thanks to foreign exchange students and miscellaneous guests? That's not even counting the salamander and bat and vole and albino rabbit that learned to use a litter box, points out Zenith.

At the head of it all was Timber. He ran the mandatory household meetings every morning, going over who needed to be picked up from chorale practice and what time the afternoon soccer game started. He helped Annette with lessons and, like her, encouraged each child to follow his or her bliss, whether that be astronomy or opera, the Air Force Academy or international politics. And, most notably, there were the pinewood derby cars many of the siblings would undertake. Under Timber's tutelage, the tiny cars became month-long scientific explorations of aerodynamics and wind resistance, wheel friction and center-of-gravity placement.

"There was a tremendous, infectious curiosity that emanated from my dad and went through everyone in my family about how the world worked, whether it was on a mechanical level or a political level," says Tomicah. "My dad, I think, used his creative talents and his administrative talents to direct my mom's energy and the energy of the rest of us in ways that allowed us to make good on talents and abilities that might otherwise just have gotten lost in the chaos."

And he would have loved it here at the Little League game. Surely he would have dropped a few of his signature zingers, terrible puns involving bats and balls. Plus, he could have helped keep everything a little more organized, the whirligigs of the kids' lives a little more under control.

As Zenith dashes off the field and recounts his exploits in colorful hyperbole, Kimber directs the others to tidy up. Everything seems on track, until Gloriana makes a face and clutches her stomach. "I have a tummyache!"

She should have known better than to choose Twinkies over Nietzsche.


The Tillemann-Dick International Emporium, which is what the kids call the big white house on their answering machine message, is hardly ever tranquil.

There's usually a Great Pyrenees getting its tail stuck in a French door or a foreign exchange student stumbling around in bewilderment, or a child sullying an Oriental rug with residue from the annual "Mud Day" festivities in the back yard.

The home's colonnaded white facade and Mediterranean-style crimson tiled roof encapsulates a world that seems to exist in another era. Classical statuary mingle with billowing plants, stained-glass windows disperse rainbows over geisha dolls. The house has come a long way since its dilapidated state in 1992, when Timber and Annette decided their cozy Victorian on Zenobia Street could no longer sustain their continually expanding brood, despite the bunk beds Timber had installed in the walk-in closet and the load-bearing walls he'd expanded using obscure mining techniques.

The big white house was the perfect place for their family, they decided, and negotiated a byzantine arrangement of mortgage payments and credit-card loans to get it. Now the refurbished chandeliers and polished walnut columns seem perennially poised for a masquerade ball, or at least the Christmas party thrown every year for the neighbors and mailmen and bank tellers and strangers in the grocery store with whom Annette struck up conversations that never seemed to end.

All about are signs of Timber. In the kitchen, the pantry doors fold in on one another like a wooden origami puzzle of dry goods. In the basement, walls conveniently slide away and bookshelves swing open into hidden rooms. There's a gargantuan swing set in the back yard, with steel-girder braces and thirty-foot oscillating swings and a veneer of painted vines and sunflowers and black-eyed Susans. The grass is kept tidy with a lawn mower modified with two wheelchair wheels. The driveway holds a big blue school bus whose seats are interspersed with double beds and whose luggage rack doubles as a tent platform. And, of course, there's Timber's office, where towers of blueprints and papers, adorned with bits of frayed wire and pieces of PVC pipe, now sit untouched.

Somewhere around here is a Sit'n'Stroll, a baby car seat that, with the press of a button, sprouts a handle and wheels, transforming itself into a stroller. Timber's idea for the apparatus came in the 1980s when, frustrated by continually having to wake up her babies to transport them from house to automobile to shopping cart, Annette asked him to make her a car seat that was also a stroller. It was the perfect assignment for Timber, allowing him to produce something that, because of the cost concerns and safety issues involved, would have to be elegant, even beautiful, in its simplicity. The fact that it involved automobiles, one of Timber's favorite things, probably didn't hurt, either.

And so the Sit'n'Stroll was born, along with a corresponding company, Safeline Children's Products Company, which Timber ran with his brother, Justin. It was the perfect job, better than his synthetic-fuel research at the Exxon-Tosco Colony Shale Oil Project in Colorado, better than selling passenger train systems after that, even better than the political campaigns he helped run for his mother and, later, his father-in-law, who appointed him campaign manager despite their rocky relationship. Safeline would be focused on ways to improve the unruly lives of busy families, something at which Timber was an expert. In the future, he could see all sorts of gadgets selling alongside the Sit'n'Stroll, like pneumatic-powered high chairs and baby swing sets that slipped away into briefcases.

None of those contraptions made it past the drawing board. The Sit'n'Stroll demanded most of his time, involving significant manufacturing expenditures, thorough safety testing, high insurance costs and a challenging industry to break into.

"We thought we would just knock this off and move on to something big," says Justin. "It wasn't meant to be as all-consuming as it was. We worked on it for ten years."

While Sit'n'Strolls eventually started selling, their creator never got to enjoy much of their windfall. When a potential investor expressed interest in the business, Timber trustingly revealed to him the debt the company had accumulated. That businessman quietly bought off the debt, then demanded that Safeline's founders hand over the company or face bankruptcy. It was a pattern Timber experienced again and again.

In 2003, inspired by the political fervor coursing through his family, this lifelong Democrat threw his hat into the ring for the city council race in northwest Denver — a race that turned ugly. Anonymous fliers appeared calling Timber pro-life, anti-schools and racist. Someone sent out e-mails, probably inspired by his name, that suggested he sold porn videos. Their target, however, wouldn't respond in kind.

"I recall suggesting, 'Maybe you should look at your opponents and look at their negative things and bring them up,'" says John Haney, a local business owner and police officer who helped with the campaign. "He refused to do it, saying, 'We are all trying to make a better Denver.' I don't know if that really hurt him." Timber would go on to win the first round of the election, but lost in a runoff to Rick Garcia.

"There were some difficult conflicts which he and I talked about a great deal during the last year or two of his life," says Bill Paddock, Timber's church bishop and close friend. "There is a certain type of person, and Timber would say he is one, who kind of get pushed around in business, or who get blindsided by dishonest people."

Even the orderly realm Timber strove to maintain at home wasn't perfect. While the household whirlwind was a hoot, there were so many kids to care for, so many agendas to juggle, so much energy to harness. Holding it all together became harder and harder.

Several years ago, while serving a mission for the church, Timber's son Levi decided to leave Mormonism, no longer able to reconcile the logical and liberal outlook his parents had instilled in him with inconsistencies he perceived in church doctrine. "There is a little bit of a Camelot element to the family," says Levi. "But there are problems, like any family."

Nevertheless, in the heart of this tornado, Timber managed to delve deeper into his fascination with automobiles than ever before. In his garage workshop, with the help of his son Corban, he homed in on the fatal flaw he saw at the core of all vehicles: the internal combustion engine.

"We liked to talk about designs that bothered us," says Corban, "the things we wanted to fix. One of the ones that came up regularly was the internal combustion engine. It's incredibly inefficient and incredibly polluting, and it's a problem."

The heart of that problem, the two realized, lay in the engine's chambers, where continual combustions move pistons up and down in their cylinders, movement that in turn powers the engine. But the vast majority of the energy dissipates uselessly into the cylinder walls as heat, wasting massive amounts of fuel.

Timber wouldn't stand for this grievous inefficiency, so using toothpick models and CAD drawings, he and Corban came up with a better solution: They got rid of the pistons and cylinders and designed chambers that expanded in diameter with each combustion, like shutter lenses. Now the energy that had formerly been lost as heat could move the chamber walls, more effectively powering the engine.

They called it the Internally Radiating Impulse Structure, or the IRIS, since the concept was as practical and beautifully elegant as the dilation of a human eye.

The family coalesced around the idea, quickly realizing its promise. The IRIS engine would be lighter and more easily implemented than other alternative transportation systems such as hybrids, electrics and fuel cells, and could be adapted to run on any sort of fuel, from gasoline to biodiesel to hydrogen.

Here was Timber's blockbuster invention, the final evolution of his childhood rocket-engine schemes, the idea he would be remembered for. Timber and the children began presenting the concept to scientists and automobile manufacturers, and they always received the same response: "Why didn't we think of that?"

"Almost everyone who sees it can also see the potential," says Brent Johnson, who was hired in January as the chief executive officer of Tendix Development, Timber's company that's developing the IRIS. "The potential of the technology, although it has challenges, is enormous. The struggle is, how much will it actually deliver. That can only be guessed at this point."

That's because they didn't yet have the funding to build an IRIS — but the way things were progressing, it was only a matter of time. The big news arrived at the end of January: NASA had named the IRIS the best new transportation idea of the year in its annual "Create the Future" design contest, beating out almost 1,000 other submissions. In April, Timber was scheduled to fly to New York to accept the reward.


It was a battle for the ages, the clash between chaos and Timber Dick.

Timber was more than a worthy adversary, seeking out balance, logic and stability wherever he roamed. He'd been immediately taken with the big white house's classical symmetry, its two perfectly proportioned wings. And he took unending comfort from the inherent equilibrium of his progeny, how almost every succeeding child alternated gender, hair color, even academic fascinations as if by some strict genetic plan. Chaos might have won a skirmish or two, but he wasn't even close to conceding victory.

This is why he would have found the circumstances of his March 29 car accident on I-70 frustratingly random. It just didn't make sense that the right front wheel of his Dodge Caravan would seize up on Floyd Hill near Idaho Springs, sending his minivan off the road and down into a ravine. This wasn't a burst tire or a stretch of slick road, but a catastrophic failure of the entire wheel, a sudden and total breakdown of the most basic operation of his vehicle — something that just shouldn't happen. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 38,588 fatal crashes in 2006, the last year for which there is data, only seven were related to wheel failure, and none involved a minivan like his.

To make matters worse, his accident involved a malfunction of one of the things he knew and loved best. He'd always been passionate about cars, making their safety and efficiency the focus of many of his inventions. In that way he was just like his father — the race-car aficionado who was killed in an auto accident.

To Timber, this predicament just wouldn't have cut it; he would have immediately wanted to start doodling solutions with one of his trusty purple pens or locked himself in his workshop until he fashioned one from Plexiglas and PVC pipe.

The doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital burn ward, where Timber had been taken after the accident, thought he might get that chance.

While he'd suffered broken bones and severe enough burns over his legs and chest that he was placed in a medically induced coma to relieve the pain, signs suggested he could be out of the hospital in a few months. So the family immediately set to work revamping life in the house to make their father's recovery as smooth as possible, the sort of thing he would have done for them.

But things went wrong. It turned out the burns in Timber's lungs were worse than at first believed, and over the next few days they began filling with fluid as he lay comatose. Starved for oxygen, his organs began to fail, one after another. There was nothing the doctors could do; it was a catastrophic failure.

Chaos, in other words, had pulled a fast one.


Death isn't the end, believed Timber. It's just a slight transformation, a shifting of gears on the road to eternity.

The Mormon church's spiritual messages had seemed so logical to him, promising protection for him and his family from the most irrational part of life: its end. According to the religion, the world he'd help build inside the big white house wasn't just meant for this lifetime. The spirits of his family were sealed together for time and all eternity, and together they would grow and learn and flourish — and probably squabble a bit — in the world after this one. "I think there is this great desire in our lives to find an end to our stories," says Charity. "The truth is, our stories don't end. I know that Daddy's story isn't going to end."

That's why, on the afternoon Timber died, his family, singing and praying around him in the hospital, were filled with grief but also peace. They knew he was simply taking an extended vacation — and sooner or later they'd see him again. Yes, Timber would miss them, but it would be nice for him to have a little peace and quiet in the afterlife. That's the good thing about the Mormon idea of Heaven: It isn't a perfect, cloud-filled Nirvana; rather, it's another world like this one, so there would be a lot of stuff for Timber to fix.

Plus, in his crusade against disorder, the inventor left behind the great whirling engine that is his family, the most fantastic of all his creations. It continues chugging along even without its central, steadfast piston, picking up where he left off.

Soon after the funeral, Tomicah, Levi and Corban traveled to New York to accept the NASA "Create the Future" award, not as a final tribute to their father, but as the next step toward the engine's implementation. Family members, working alongside Timber's business partners and colleagues at the University of Denver, are planning to build a basic prototype of the IRIS, and many believe the device's potential has skyrocketed thanks to escalating gas prices. "All of us felt very strongly that we couldn't let this die," says Tomicah. "At least in the years between today and when we're able to move off fossil fuels, we hope this will become the solution."

Back in Denver, the big white house remains as busy as ever. Brothers and sisters pop in from distant ports, take their seats at the dining room table and add their voices to the ruckus. They help with the morning Dante lessons and trips to the art museum, fill the dining room with lilacs — Annette's favorite — and encourage their younger brothers and sisters to always follow their bliss, just as Timber did for them.

There are the tearful nights, says Corban over the phone from China, "but the biggest inheritance our dad left us was each other. We are able to rely on each other, to support each other, and to know there will always be someone there for us. That knowledge makes dealing with this so much easier and so much less scary."

And then, one by one, the children will be off again on distant adventures, each doing their part toward Tillemann-Dick world domination.

"There's not an hour that goes by when I don't think about what happened," says Shiloh, whipping up some olive bread in the kitchen before he packs for his internship with the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, D. C. "But I have no option but to thrive. There is no alternative. If we all stayed together and didn't do anything, what would be the point of that?"

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19 comments
Barb
Barb

I enjoyed this article very much and knowing this family the way I do they will continue to thrive as they continue to enjoy life together. Thank you for memories of their background. I try to stay in touch with them but as you can tell they are so very busy it proves to be a challenge. God Bless them.

Gracie Jones
Gracie Jones

By the way, great article. Wonderfully written and I feel like I know these quirky, crazy cool people.

Gracie Jones
Gracie Jones

I don't understand why people assume they are wealthy. I know exactly 0 families who have that many kids and are wealthy. But I do think they're pretty cool.

Jana
Jana

There are PLENTY of well connected kids who end up doing nothing with their lives. What is remarkable about this family is that they put their family first -- over fame or money or anything else -- and it shows.

Ben
Ben

Yes, it's amazing what heights children of wealthy, well-connected members of the elite, can reach. Golly.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

What kind of idiot names his kid Timber Dick? And what kind of idiot named Timber Dick doesn't get it changed?

Jeremy Bates
Jeremy Bates

How could anyone hope to accomplish more? Open-minded, accepting, always willing to help. The entire family has been a great example in education, career, and religion. It's also refreshing to have the media's stereotypical view of the LDS as being nothing but conservative illuminated.

Nuri
Nuri

A beautiful family full of amazing people. May they be well served, and may we be deserving of their service to our country as we move forward into this exciting and terrifying time.

Lilac
Lilac

Impressive is an understatement when describing any member of this large family. A chance encounter in which several members of this tribe of over-achievers gave me a lasting and inspiring impression of what is right with the world today is a cherished memory. Kudos on this lovely article.

Ernest
Ernest

I think that they sound like an incredible family. I'm curious though why the author compared them to the Tenenbaums?

Harley K.
Harley K.

Well written article, Joel. Timber is a great American man with a great American family. I hope to incorporate some of his characteristics in my own family like curiousness, service to others, and love of life.

Holly
Holly

I grew up with the Tillemann-Dicks and went to church with them. I remember growing up with the older kids and seeing majority of the younger ones being born and the joy of always going to their home for church functions. I will always remember the stories that Timber and Annette shared all the time about the love they had for eachother. Timber was a wonderful bishop when I was in Young Woman's. I will miss Timber, but there is always one thing to never ever forget and that is the happiness we share in the LDS faith, Families are Together Forever.

Chris Willford
Chris Willford

It is sad that people use the anonymity of the internet to make such insensitive, thoughtless comments. Callousness too often replaces compassion. I knew Timber--an intelligent, compassionate man who was always willing to help. He truly demonstrated the principles of success: education, hard work, integrity, and love of family. If we would seek to better implement these ideas into our lives, I am convinced that we would all be better off.

Lora
Lora

And you're voting for Ron Paul. At least these people seem ok with being different.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Well Christian have come to represent the worst there is in religious America. When you contrast the portrait painted in this article versus the story last week's article followed which seems more cult like to you? A loving successful family or dramatizations that ask the question "if you're not willing to die for Jesus how can you live for Him." I am sick of being subjected to the judgments of any self-righteous evangelical tom, DICK or harry who is so insecure with their own belief system that they feel the need to belittle the faiths of others. The only point you prove in your derisions is the emptiness of your religiosity.

Rhonda
Rhonda

You sir, sound far more like a cultist than this lovely family. So unless you're a mormon, I'd keep my mouth shut. And good luck to them in their quest for world whatever they want to do. I think they'll do a lovely job.

nick werle
nick werle

Mormons are cultists just like Jim Jones and Branch Davidians althought low key.

Steve Eisenberg
Steve Eisenberg

Rich and priveleged people have to work as hard as anyone else to get good at something. What this family is mostly rich with is love, enough to give the kids self-confidence to succeed.

 
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