Tillie Zyp

Tillie Zyp

October 7, 2013

Tillie Zyp heard noise in the kitchen in the dark of night many years ago at the home she and her husband Hank lived in south of Enoch. Undeterred by the possibility that burglars might be looting their belongings, she got up and confronted three teenage boys who had broken in.

"Do you boys know what you are doing with your lives?" Tillie asked them. Then, she sat the boys down, made a pot of soup and had a heart-to-heart talk with them for three hours on life and its possibilities.

Tillie's daughter Michelle told me this story a couple of days after her mom died on Sept. 24. It was typical Tillie. She was one of the most dedicated social justice advocates one would ever meet, but she was a pushover for nobody.

"She was able to see the good in everybody even if they couldn't see it in themselves," Michelle said.

Anyone who knew Tillie knew she was a remarkable woman, one of a kind.

I met her more than 30 years ago, shortly after I became editor of the WCR. I walked into the office of Development and Peace in the old The King's College in Edmonton's inner city, where Tillie served as the organization's secretary.

She was pleased with the work I was doing at the newspaper and, by the end of the conversation, she had invited me over for supper. So began a friendship which was certainly one-sided. Tillie was always rolling out the welcome mat for me and for hordes of others. She extracted various forms of volunteer labour from me for some of the causes in which she and Hank were involved, but nothing to equal the hospitality she provided.

"She loved to make meals for people," said Theresa, the elder Zyp daughter. People were always coming to the family home for meals, to stay overnight or for meetings.


Everyone from Development and Peace visitors to traditional Mexican healers stayed at the Zyp home, with the girls often asked to vacate their beds so a sojourner had a place to lay his or her head.

The one time I did manage to repay some of their hospitality was something of a disaster. My soon-to-be wife Nora and I invited Hank and Tillie as well as another couple – the male member of which was further to the right on the political spectrum than the Zyps were to the left – as well as other people, over to my apartment for Christmas Eve dinner.

It didn't take long for a raucous political discussion to break out, a discussion that might still be going on if we didn't all have to head off to Mass. Nora and I have had many lively dinner parties since then, but none so full of fire as that one.

Tillie, however, took it all in stride and had a good laugh about it later.

Hank, a teacher, artist, writer and social activist who died in April 2012, had the higher public profile than Tillie.

"She didn't get the limelight as much as Dad because he had that golden tongue," said Theresa.

The pair founded three non-governmental organizations to assist projects in developing nations – Change for Children, Rainbow of Hope and St. Joseph's Save the Children Fund.

In its early years, Change for Children raised money through bottle drives and bazaars, Theresa recalled. "But when Mom took over Change for Children (as president), she made that organization go. She put it on the map."

Last year, Change for Children raised more than $1.1 million and supported an array of projects in Latin America and Africa.

But if Tillie was a master organizer, it was only because people were so important to her. Raised on a farm near Humboldt, Sask., she moved to Edmonton to be closer to her sister who was a nun.

It wasn't long before she was organizing young Catholic women to visit aboriginal children in the Aberhart Hospital. It was the 1950s, prior to the loosening of tight rules for the Eucharistic fast, and when, one Sunday morning, some of the kids had eaten breakfast, Tillie took matters into her own hands.


She got on the phone, tracked down Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald and convinced the archbishop to grant a dispensation so the children could receive Communion that day.

When Hank met his future wife, he was enthralled; Tillie simply recruited him as a helper for her causes. Eventually, he won her hand, but not without putting in a lot of volunteer hours first.

One of the couple's first projects was to provide a home for young native people who were coming to study in the city. "They were always part of our family," said Theresa. "They were not just boarders."

Now, Hank and Tillie have gone to their eternal reward. It's hard to imagine that they will be sitting still, however. Tillie will have bread in the oven, soup on the stove and a house full of people . . . many of whom will be listening to Hank denounce the injustices in the world down below.