Cleo Tilton
Cleo Tilton

August 1, 2018

If you were lucky enough to be assigned Mrs. Cleo Tilton as your sixth-grade teacher, more than likely she became one of your favorite teachers.

She was certainly one of my favorite and most memorable teachers. I was in Room 6T and one of Mrs. Tilton’s students during the 1986-1987 school year at Fairview Elementary School in Carroll.

Mrs. Tilton passed away on July 11 in Carroll and left a legacy not many educators can come close to matching. Her teaching career spanned 45 years, all in Carroll Community Schools and all teaching sixth grade.

Spending a school year in Mrs. Tilton’s classroom meant 180 days filled with encouragement and inspiration from a teacher who was one-of-a-kind.

Mrs. Tilton was as unique as her first name. Her appearance featured flawless porcelain skin and perfectly coifed fair hair along with her impeccable wardrobe and overall appearance.

“I remember she was incredibly proud of her Norwegian heritage and was often heard saying, ‘Uff da!’” recalled former student, Michelle Burns Stemwedel.

Neil Diamond didn’t know it, but Mrs. Tilton was his biggest fan. One of Diane Wilt Winey’s strongest memories of Mrs. Tilton was her love of music and how she played all of her Neil Diamond favorites any chance she had.

Mrs. Tilton loved her cats dearly, and she talked of them often, almost like they were her children. Former student, Jill Daiker Bowe said, “I liked that she was a cat lady and owned it.” She often hung Garfield cartoons on her classroom walls.

Cleo loved chocolate. A few years ago, when I contacted her about a story about favorite recipes, she sent me one of her favorite recipes along with a little gift in the mail. It was a mini cookbook devoted solely to chocolate. Sandy Derner Seim has many fond memories of being in Mrs. Tilton’s classroom including how she gave up her beloved chocolate for Lent each year.

Her classroom walls were plastered with People magazine covers making it a colorful and cozy space. The cheery classroom was filled with houseplants cared for by students. Former student, Holly Richardson Tigges vividly remembers the plant to which she was assigned.

“I loved my jade plant, I was so proud of it. I was so glad to have her as my teacher since my older sisters had her also,” said Tigges.

There are so many words to describe Mrs. Tilton — funny, classy, kind and enthusiastic.

In the late ’70s former Fairview student Angie Menchaca Alkilani moved to Carroll from a bilingual school in Texas. When asked by Mrs. Farrell, her kindergarten teacher, if she knew the Pledge of Allegiance, she recited it in Spanish. Mrs. Farrell was so impressed she took young Angie to show Cleo.

“Mrs. Tilton took me around to all the other teachers to repeat it over and over. She was so proud of me. She was so warm and always had a smile,” recounted Alkilani.

I remember our unit on poetry in sixth grade. Mrs. Tilton was passionate about poetry, and she devoted months to introducing us to the art of poetry. I recall she was very particular about the way we pronounced the word, “poet.” She made sure we emphasized the t at the end. She instilled in us that we were all poets and we could all write poetry. She had a blank book for each of us, and we filled it with our own poetry in the style of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. She was patient and gentle and encouraged us to take chances and try new things.

Former student Kim Zimmerman saw the same in Mrs. Tilton.

“Mrs. Tilton believed in her students and always wanted them to succeed. She encouraged us to push our boundaries and move out of our comfort zone,” said Zimmerman.

My favorite day during sixth grade was Book Character Day. We were to come to school dressed up like a favorite character from a book. I dressed up as a fashion-forward teen named Claudia Kishi from the “Baby-Sitters Club” book series. I wore fun, colorful socks that played music when I pressed a button. Mrs. Tilton was tickled pink by my socks and made sure I showed the judges what my socks could do when they came into our classroom.

Sixth grade in Carroll was Cheryl Greiman Henkenius’ very first teaching assignment.

“I was fortunate to join a teaching team who shared everything and planned great learning experiences for students. Cleo’s room was filled with books and resources. Anytime a colleague was searching for materials for a lesson, Cleo always seemed to have it and happily shared,” recalled Henkenius.

As former student Kim Zimmerman put it, “She made learning exciting.”

After learning about Ancient Greece students were all invited to the Roman banquet, a very special event just for sixth-graders. The gym was transformed into a space for students to don togas made from bed sheets and sit on the floor to be waited upon. I remember sampling Roman-inspired foods such as grapes and even peacock tongue (strands of cold spaghetti that were dyed pink).

Former teaching colleague Henkenius has vivid memories of her very first Roman banquet.

“The morning of the banquet, I got to school and Cleo was already wearing a toga, and of course, she had extra togas so the rest of us had no excuse not to wear one!” said Henkenius.

My mother, Ann Wilson, was fortunate to have Cleo as her sixth-grade teacher during Cleo’s very first year of teaching. Many years later my older brother Doug Burns had Mrs. Tilton as his sixth-grade teacher, and I was very excited to be in her classroom for sixth grade, as well.

“Through the years I have known Cleo Tilton in many ways and have enjoyed her creative ways. Cleo was one of my favorite grade-school teachers,” said Wilson. “Two of my children had her as a teacher. The projects she assigned to be done at home, provided many interesting conversations at our dinner table. In later years Cleo was my friend and PEO sister. Her programs at PEO meetings were on a variety of subjects, and all were fascinating. Many of us have benefited because of interaction with Cleo.”

Over the years countless positive and meaningful interactions with colleagues, students, parents, and community members were had with Mrs. Tilton.

Deb Wirtz Davis, former Carroll Police officer taught DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in Mrs. Tilton and the late Mrs. Shari Oleson’s classrooms.

Davis said, “They were very special teachers. All of the sixth-grade teachers were the best that year! I gained a newfound respect for teachers by being in their presence.”

Former student Tracy Tillson credits Cleo for her career choice.

“She is one reason I am a teacher! She was such a kind person and so knowledgeable,” said Tillson.

“She positively impacted the thousands of young lives, and she will be missed,” said former student, Kim Zimmerman.

Former student, Michelle Burns Stemwedel, summed up Mrs. Tilton well, “Teaching was the perfect profession for her.”