The First Lady of Tanglewood
As many residents prepare to honor Lillian Illig on her approaching 100th birthday this month, the neighborhood is abuzz in celebration and awe.
Lillian, lovingly and respectfully referred to as Miss Lillian, embodies qualities residents cherish, explaining the high esteem both young and old hold for her.
Miss Lillian is a lady, from the top of her straw hat to the tip of her gardening shoes. She represents a bygone era, where ladies left home donned with dainty gloves and a hat, and never uttered an unkind word about anyone.
Scores of anecdotes include Miss Lillian’s knowledge of horticulture coupled with the legacy of her formation of the Tanglewood Garden Club with her friend, Bernice B. Farrington. So many residents revere Miss Lillian for beginning the neighborhood’s love affair with flowers, which endures as strongly today as it did when she presided over the first Tanglewood Garden Club meeting back in 1952. Miss Lillian’s own garden has yielded many fine specimens of floral arrangements over the decades, the recipients of which can recount how the arrangement added more than physical beauty to the occasion.
Still striking at nearly 100, it’s not hard to imagine that Miss Lillian was an absolute beauty as a young woman. Those who know her are aware of the remarkable wit and intelligence she possesses. Miss Lillian was one of the “Beauties” noted in the Rice University graduation book upon her graduation from Rice in 1930. It was here that she began dating Carl Illig, and the couple married in 1933. In 1952, Miss Lillian and Carl, along with their three children, built the house she still occupies in Tanglewood.
One of the most enduring gifts that she has bestowed upon Tanglewood is her demonstration of living life to its fullest. Residents half her age struggle to rise and beat Miss Lillian to a stroll along the Boulevard. By 7 a.m., she can be seen waving her glove-clad hand to those just starting out in the morning chill. “Over the many years of walking Tanglewood Boulevard in the mornings, a bright light has always been Mrs. Illig walking along and greeting everyone she sees,” says Kelly Frels.
“She is truly a legend and an inspiration to all of us, sharing her knowledge of gardening and growing flowers and vegetables from seeds,” adds Gina Saour.
Miss Lillian’s garden has yielded many gifts. She often arrived at a garden club meeting with something from her garden, such as when all members received a gardenia or sachet of dried flowers she made from her garden pickings. When Miss Lillian was 95, she heard of dear friend Phil Kensinger’s passing. Knowing how he admired her bougainvillea, she sent over a beautiful arrangement of such to Ollie, his widow.
“I have never been to my mother’s house where there was not a fresh flower arrangement in the ‘ice box’ ready to be given away,” says son Dale Illig. “Mother loves people and loves flowers. She never gets tired of either one.”
Friends and family know even at 99, Miss Lillian’s table is always adorned with a vase filled with fresh flowers from her garden. She still plants tomatoes from seed, which she grows by the sink of her kitchen window. Over the years, Miss Lillian has published various articles on gardening and has received several prizes for her floral exhibits and famous tomatoes.
Always a forward thinker, Miss Lillian’s gardening techniques would make any organic gardener proud. Jan Nieland, current president of the Tanglewood Garden Club, says she’s totally reformed her own gardening methods under Miss Lillian’s tutelage toward using organic soil and natural composts, with a fabulous crop of tomatoes resulting. “I have become especially aware of the enduring legacy of Miss Lillian’s contributions and leadership in our community, as she continues to serve as a gracious and generous example for us all,” she says.
Miss Lillian is a reminder to those who come in contact with her to stop and smell the roses, both literally and figuratively. Life’s little pleasures, such as having a fresh flower arrangement on the table or enjoying a homegrown fruit, are not to be taken for granted. Judge Lee Duggan recalls how for six years, he and Joe Cutler walked Tanglewood Boulevard, and any day they failed to visit, Miss Lillian would lead them to comment, “Not a day well begun.”
What a blessing to be turning 100, and what a blessing to be someone with whom people hope to start off their day. Happy Birthday, Miss Lillian!
Happy 100th Birthday
Tributes from friends and neighbors
“When I think of Ms. Lillian, my senses are flooded with sweetness and honey. She oozes true Southern charm and hospitality and is always dressed to perfection with bright spring and summer colors. We consider it a real honor and privilege to call her our special friend. Happy birthday, Ms. Lillian.” – Gigi Shapiro
“Sharing her knowledge of the beautiful flowers that she grew in her lovely back yard has impressed us all. Thanks, Mrs. Illig, and may you have a blessed 100th birthday! – Parr Jeko
“One of the times Lillian helped me was when our West Pointer son returned from Desert Storm, and we were having a welcome home party. She made our arrangement, and our son and my husband, Lee, went to her house to pick it up. She kissed Doug on the cheek and said, ‘Thank you for going to war for me.’ I’ll never forget that! What a lady!” – Annette Duggan
“To have Lillian as your friend is to know that you are always welcome in her home. Just drive in the driveway and you will probably find her working in her garden. If she’s not there, knock on the kitchen door and call her name. You will feel totally welcomed and loved. She will not only give you the gift of her wisdom and humor, she’ll probably send you home with flowers, fresh-harvested veggies, plant cuttings or food.” – Jane Tolson
“I was introduced to Ms. Lillian by my mother, Sue Coolidge. They served many years on the Tanglewood Garden Club board together. I know Mom held Ms. Lillian in the highest regard and cherished her friendship.” – Gayle Coolidge Hightower
“Lillian inspires me to walk every day, although I don’t always make it to Tanglewood Boulevard in time to see her walking at 7 a.m. She is truly a remarkable lady.” – John Cheatham
“Ms. Lillian, we are blessed to be your friend and to have embraced some of your knowledge and love of Tanglewood. God Bless you.” – Louise Erwin
“Ms. Lillian is not just my good friend but my good neighbor for 42 years. Any time I had joy or sadness, there would be a beautiful flower arrangement at my door.” – Ava Lea Gray
“I have always enjoyed having a few of Lillian’s tomato plants. She grows them from seed, of course, even at age 99.” – Diane Hale
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