Frances Ragland Tillson

Frances Ragland Tillson

Frances Ragland Tillson, who devoted much of her life to helping others, died on Wednesday, July 21, at Carolina Meadows near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She would have been 99 on July 26.

Daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, civil rights activist, patient advocate, hostess, friend, Mrs. Tillson will be missed by scores of friends and family who will remember fondly her birthday and anniversary notes, her cheese wafers, cranberry bread and strawberry jam, her thoughtfulness and her blunt political declarations.

Frances Anita Ragland was born on July 26, 1922 in Paris, Texas, the only child of Mitchell Daniel Ragland and Lillian LeClercq Ragland. She attended college at Stephens College then Northwestern University, dropping out just short of her degree when she met and fell in love with Army Capt. John B. Tillson, of Westport, Massachusetts. The two were married on Dec. 16, 1943.

Over the next four decades they lived in Paris, Texas, Greenwich, Connecticut, New Bedford and Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harrisville, New Hampshire, before retiring to Chapel Hill in 1986. Mr. Tillson died in 2006.

In New Bedford and Cambridge, Mrs. Tillson managed the household and raised their three sons. In Cambridge and later Chapel Hill Mrs. Tillson was known for her elaborate dinner parties, which featured multiple courses of delicious food, ample drink and lively conversation. Gathered around her table in Cambridge were Harvard professors and students, published authors and would-be authors, civil rights activists, Episcopal priests and seminarians, famous heart surgeons and, occasionally, a son home from prep school or college.

A daughter of the South who grew up with Black servants taking care of her, Mrs. Tillson became a passionate advocate for civil rights, traveling to Mississippi to work on voter registration and other efforts and participating in various demonstrations. She and her husband became close personal friends with civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).

As her children left home, Mrs. Tillson became virtually a full-time volunteer for renowned heart surgeon Dwight E. Harken at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, working with the families of Dr. Harkin’s critically-ill heart patients. Even when slowed by vision and hearing loss in recent years, Mrs. Tillson continued her volunteer activities. Well into her 90s she would get up early each day and go to the Carolina Meadows Nursing Center where she helped staff deliver breakfast to the patients. In addition to food she was known for dispensing hugs, encouragement and, occasionally, medical advice. For this and other volunteer efforts she received the Carolina Meadows President’s Award.

Mrs. Tillson is survived by her sons, John Bradford Jr. and Jacqueline, of Rolesville, North Carolina, Christopher Ragland, of Milford, Connecticut and William Henry and Alexandra, of West Palm Beach, Florida. She is grandmother, to John Bradford III and Angie Mitchell, Courtney Paterna and Matthew, Karen Ketterer and Edward, Christopher Jr. and Becky, Brooke Olexa and Mark, and James; and great-grandmother, to Tyler, Shelbee, Trey, Madelyn, Miles, Katie, Max, Leah, Sutter, Meredith, Anna Kate and Mac. She is also survived by her cousin, Robert R. LeClercq, of San Marcos, Texas. In addition, Mrs. Tillson was loving godmother to Judy Russell DeMailly, Elizabeth Rapp Dyson, John Meyer and Joyce Barboza Davis. She is also survived by her feline companion, Bella, who came after the death of her beloved Sheba.

A lifelong Episcopalian Mrs. Tillson was an associate of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. She was a member of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill where her life will be celebrated with the Service of Christian Burial at the convenience of her family. Mrs. Tillson’s ashes and those of her husband will be buried in the Tillson family plot at Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

The family wishes to thank the employees of Carolina Meadows for their love and support of Mrs. Tillson over the years and the doctors, nurses and staff of the Pines at Carolina Meadows and the caregivers of UNC Hospice for their loving care at the end of her life.

It was Mrs. Tillson’s desire that, in lieu of flowers, friends contribute to charities of their choice or to the Carolina Meadows Employee Appreciation Fund, Carolina Meadows, Inc., 100 Carolina Meadows, Chapel Hill, NC 27517.

Condolences may be made at

Donaldson Funeral Home & Crematory is honored to serve the Tillson family.

No Services to be held at this time.

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