Longform

Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

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"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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner