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Ottilie Schroeter Timnick and a Son's Life Lessons Learned

"And when I think of my mother, I have to believe that the MSU College of Arts and Letters represents who my mother was."

MSU Alumnus Henry O. Timnick and his mother, Ottillie Schroeter Timnick

Ottilie Schroeter Timnick and a Son's Life Lessons Learned

In January 2015, Kyle Powys Whyte, a professor in the MSU College of Arts and Letters Department of Philosophy, was named Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University. MSU alumnus and retired businessman Henry O. Timnick ('55, College of Arts and Letters; '58, MA, Business) established the position, funding it through the Henry O. Timnick Endowment Fund, in honor of his mother, Ottilie Schroeter Timnick.

Recently, Mr. Timnick shared his thoughts about the reasoning behind his gift in honor of his mother, including some personal remembrances of her.

My Mother

I think that I was fortunate to have been raised by a ‘Renaissance Woman.’ I learned more from my mother than anyone else.

She taught me that ‘laughing is the best medicine.’ She was extremely witty herself, and saw humor in most everything. She also taught me, at a very young age, that if you don’t love your work, you can’t be a happy person. It’s impossible.

My parents had everything taken away from them during the Russian Revolution. Up until then, they had been living comfortably in Ukraine, which, at that time, was part of Russia. For a while, they wandered around Russia just trying to survive. Luckily, with help from Canada—they were able to move there in 1927. 

So, imagine you’re a woman of 34 in the 1920s, having to learn a new language and start over with nothing; living in a very modest manner to put it mildly. And you’ve had to give away or leave behind everything you had. And there is no running water, the toilet is in the backyard, and you have no money. Yet, somehow, you need to learn—to figure out how to get an education. 

And she did. My mother was not formally educated, but she became one of the most well educated people I’ve ever known through reading books. I was amazed to learn, later in life, that our mother used to have a book club in, of all places, our home! And that was when book clubs were largely unheard of.

My siblings and I were raised with the love of music. Even though my parents had little money during the Depression, somehow they found money for us to have musical instruments. And in my case, it was a clarinet. We also sang a lot at home and that was the basis for my singing in men’s adult chorale groups all my life. I can’t think of anything that has given me as much joy as music, thanks to my parents.

My mother set a tone of being very generous to others, too, even when our funds were limited, and that philosophy has remained with me. In life, there are varying shades of generosity and people’s attitudes towards giving and taking. And she felt strongly that people who are givers are much happier.

So, we were given a great interest in being deserving of whatever we achieved. And even with such limited resources, our mother told us we must share with others. Essentially, if you’re lucky enough to make some money, you give back.

Bolsheviks had taken all of my parents’ money away, so for my mother to see her son get back the family well-being was a joy. She loved that I’d also picked up on being generous, and was extremely happy about that.

One time, in her later years, I was in Victoria with my mother, sisters Emma and Ruthie, to celebrate her birthday. So, I asked my mother: “What do you think are two or three of the things you are most proud of accomplishing?”

Without missing a beat, she immediately replied, ‘Seeing you grow into the man you have become, and seeing you being generous to your brother and sisters, and your generosity to others, that is the happiest of my life accomplishments.”

In her definition, it is impossible to be happy without being generous.

So, when I started giving back, I realized I had to think about where I ought to give back.

In this country, we spend money on wars in other countries, and yet, there’s not enough money to take care of our National Parks or for education. 

So, I decided to give back to help community colleges, to help MSU, and to help my school, Luther College, and its music department; in great part, to honor my mother, Ottilie Timnick. It’s why I funded the Tilchen Computer Lab (Tilchen was my mother’s nickname), as well as two dorms named after my sisters at a Lutheran primary school in Tanzania, and the Timnick Garden at Luther Court in Victoria, British Columbia.

My mother was an incredible woman; even when she was 108! Her only regret was that, back in Russia, she had been promised an education and, as she said, ‘Of course, I had to learn on my own.’ 

As for me, while I was a student at Michigan State University, I was encouraged to take a lot of liberal arts courses. And that was back when class sizes were 16, 18 or 20 students. So, I thought that an endowed faculty position in the liberal arts in her honor would be a wonderful thing to do in memory of our mother, and a great way to give back to MSU. 

That said, I am so pleased about the selection of Kyle Whyte as the first professor to hold the Timnick Chair in the Humanities, and I’m sure my mother would be pleased with his selection, too. Kyle has framed and hung a lovely photograph and write-up about my mother in the room he occupies as Timnick Chair. It’s a simple, yet meaningful way to connect the two (see next page).

That way, any succeeding Timnick Chair will know the incredible woman he or she represents. And it just may jog others into thinking about possibly doing something in honor of their parents.

Now, as some know, I do have a degree from the Business School, and have given to it, as well. But the humanities often do not get the level of funding that the professional schools do. And when I think of my mother, I have to believe that the MSU College of Arts and Letters represents who my mother was.

For more information on making a gift to the College of Arts and Letters, contact Director of Development Bridget Paff at paff@msu.edu or call (517) 353-4725.

Author: Mike Jenkins

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