Karl Tilleman: An Example of Determination and Endurance

Contributed by  Larry Carter of the Surrey British Columbia Stake

  • 18 January 2013

Go forth with pow'r to tell the world the gospel is restored, that all may gain eternal life thru Jesus Christ, the Lord. Go forth to preach his glorious truths of peace, of joy, and love, that all who heed his holy word may praise the Lord above.

- Hymns, 263, Go Forth with Faith.

A two-time Olympic athlete, award winning lawyer, loving husband, father of five and University of Calgary royalty, “King” Karl M. Tilleman, now Mission President for the Canada Vancouver Mission, showed determination from an early age. This determination led to perseverance, strength of character, a notable career and a very strong relationship with his loving and supportive spouse, Holly Benson Walker.

Born in Ogden, Utah, Karl moved to Calgary, Alberta with his family when his father accepted a teaching position at the University of Calgary. In high school, Karl developed a love for basketball. At the University of Calgary, he quickly began racking up awards: Canada West Player of the Year and All Star in 1981, 1982, 1983, as well as Calgary Male Athlete of the Year 1981 and 1983. Basketball, although a major focus in Karl’s early life, is but a metaphor for determination and enduring to the end.

He played in the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta in 1983 and in 1984, was a member of Canada’s Basketball team at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. During his first Olympic game, Karl found himself guarding Michael Jordan, his favourite basketball player, and came to the attention of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Karl was drafted in the 4th round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Nuggets, however upon arriving in Denver became very sick with the flu. Mostly recovered, he suited up to play in a pre-season game. When he gained the ball, he made a move toward the basket but stepped on another player’s foot, severely twisting his own ankle. As a result of the injury, Karl was cut from the team, providing an opportunity to fulfill a promise that he had made with the Lord to serve a mission.

After serving in the California Arcadia Mission, Karl attended law school at BYU. While there, he maintained his connection with Canada and traveled with the National Team in 1986 and 1987 and played again for Canada in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.

Karl graduated summa cum laude (with highest distinction) in 1990 with the Order of the Coif and as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. He clerked for Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court and even tried to teach Justice Clarence Thomas to play basketball.

After law school, he joined Steptoe & Johnson LLP, a prominent international law firm, and eventually moved to their Phoenix, Arizona office. Here he earned significant peer recognition, including being listed amongst “Best Lawyers in America in 2011” and “Arizona’s Finest Lawyers in 2011.”

Prior to accepting his call in 2011 as Mission President, Karl was interviewed at the White House for an appointment as a Federal Court Judge, but realized that accepting the appointment would considerably change his priorities, so he turned down the position.

In preparing for their mission in British Columbia, President Tilleman and wife Holly had the unique experience of being in the MTC with two of their sons. Now responsible for the Canada Vancouver Mission, covering most of the province of British Columbia, an area 1.3 times the size of Texas. As mission president, he clearly understands his priorities and focuses much of his effort on helping new members become “enduring members.” During his calling, the Church has expanded missionary activity to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) where there had been no missionaries since 1970. Very quickly a dependent branch was established.

A few months into their mission while on a proselyting appointment, President and Sister Tilleman visited a prospective member with two of their missionaries. After the lesson and discussion, they were leaving the home when President Tilleman asked permission to pet the owner’s rescued Bull Mastiff. The dog, on a leash, was calm, and the investigator gave permission. President Tilleman reached out to the dog, which suddenly bit his hand. The injury was severe, but he wanted to make light of the incident and proceeded to leave the house when he then fell on the concrete stairs. When he awoke, the paramedics were strapping him onto a backboard and putting a cervical collar on his neck. President Tilleman remembers calling out to their investigator as he was taken to the ambulance “It’s not your fault! I asked to pet him!” Unfortunately, he suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of the fall.

In hospital for seventeen days, President Tilleman acknowledged that the brethren might deem it wise to release him from his service as Mission President, yet he earnestly desired to carry on in spite of the physical challenges. He arranged for his missionary assistants to bring him files and phoned twice a day while he worked to regain his mobility. With Sister Tilleman’s daily assistance, priesthood blessings, his medical team and his life-long determination to persevere, he laboured to regain feeling and movement in his limbs. Today, President Tilleman no longer wears the neck brace and is energetically back holding firesides, training missionaries, meeting and teaching prospective members and bringing smiles to those around him.

Part of President Tilleman’s physiotherapy included regaining the ability to not only walk again, but specifically to be able to lower someone into the waters of baptism and successfully raise them out again. Jenny, the dog owner, was the first person he baptized when he was able to do so. The Tillemans, a forgiving, Christ-like and very determined couple, are now a part of Jenny’s life and part of the fabric of the Richmond Ward.

As a young athlete, Karl, showed determination and endurance; as an adult, President Tilleman continues to be an excellent example of those qualities and most importantly of Christ’s love.