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East Northport postal carrier's creative genius remembered

Griffin Roche-Tilden, son of James Tilden, kisses his

Griffin Roche-Tilden, son of James Tilden, kisses his mother Katie Roche during a ceremony in memory of James Tilden at the Rainbow Chimes International School for Early Education in Huntington, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

For 38 years, James Tilden delivered the mail in East Northport, ZIP code 11731 -- satchel slung over a shoulder, loping along, sorting and stuffing.

Residents who came to know the painfully shy man couldn't have guessed that he was, in another life, a folk singer, composer and author. And that the words he hummed as he approached their mailbox, followed by brief pauses to scribble notes on scrap paper, were song lyrics.

But scores of friends and family who knew the secret celebrated the humble mailman's creative side Saturday with a "farewell concert."

The send-off for Tilden, 63, of Huntington, who died last month from a brain disorder, featured the music he'd recorded in his living room on a pair of reel-to-reel tape recorders.

"I would always have to tiptoe in the house because I would never know if he was recording," recalled his wife, Katie Roche.


Leaving a treasure trove

Tilden strummed his acoustic Gibson guitar and sang -- sometimes about his children and the curiosities he'd find on his postal route -- leaving behind a legacy of more than 100 unpublished songs.

They range from toe-tappers such as "Ratty Old Caddy" -- Well, I fixed her up and I made her shine . . . with pin stripes and whitewalls she looks mighty fine -- to sentimental ballads.

For his then-5-year-old son: Little boy . . . you're growing far too fast and you've got so little time.

Roche and close friends also read excerpts Saturday from "11731: Chronicles of the Mailman," the book he started but couldn't finish. The family vows to complete the manuscript and get it published.

The book was another of his secrets.

"He was such a shy man. He would hide his light under a bushel. He would never push himself forward; he would always be dragged out in the spotlight," Roche said.

People were drawn to him, though, because in small gatherings "he was a storyteller," Roche said at the memorial concert held at Rainbow Chimes Early Education Center in Huntington, opened by the couple in 1980.

Tilden's first song was recorded more than 50 years ago, accompanied by a childhood friend and neighbor, Bill Titze. They called it "I Don't Want to Go to the State Pen."

Titze recalled how they'd spend many hours as teenagers in his basement, sitting on stools, composing melodies. The boys recorded 15 albums filled with love songs, but had no music-star ambitions.

They landed their only paying gig -- $4 a night, plus meals, at a local burger joint -- but lost interest after that. It was too much like work.

"Jim was different," said Titze, 61, who now lives in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. "He was creative, a real humanitarian, a really deep person. He brought out all these great things in me that I would have never discovered."


A father has rights

One of Tilden's biggest personal discoveries came with a bolt of moral outrage.

When his first marriage ended and he was granted custody of his son, he was shocked years later to find that his ex-wife had taken the boy to Miami without his knowledge.

He would get Jim back, but the experience in the late 1970s spurred him to become active in a father's rights support group in New York.

In 2007, he retired from the U.S. Postal Service. A year later, he was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration, a disorder that has no cure.

Doctors gave him four to six years to live, Roche said. He lost his ability to speak and his health gradually declined. But he traveled with his wife, spent time with his family and started writing his book.

Tilden died Oct. 4 in hospice care, "in my arms, just the way we'd want it to be," said Roche, 58.

At Saturday's memorial concert, one of their five children, Rhiannon Roche-Tilden, 30, of Islip, borrowed his guitar to play a song she wrote for him.

Tears welled in her eyes as she sang "Daddy's Little Girl."

Always been daddy's little girl . . .

And I hope that when he thinks of me

That he knows that I try to be

The kind of woman that he saw in me

Roche kissed her daughter's head afterward.

"If dad had heard that, he'd be the one crying," Roche said.

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