By John D. Pierce

One Sunday as a Berry College student in the ’70s I approached the big front doors of the First Baptist Church of Rome, Ga., unsure of what I’d find on the other side. It was a more imposing structure than what had long been my church home in the upper reaches of the state.

One of those tall doors swung open and I was greeted by a welcoming smile and a firm handshake from Earl Tillman. Ever since I’ve felt at home when visiting that fine congregation.

Earl has advanced the southern tradition of storytelling around northwest Georgia and well beyond for decades. Now his positive personality shines through in a new book from Nurturing Faith.

Never Repress Laughter: Stories to Bring Smiles, Memories, and Gratitude by Earl D. Tillman is packed full of tales — from his rural upbringing in South Georgia, through a sterling career in the insurance business to experiences as a flight instructor.

As a young person Earl and his twin brother, Ed, attended the former Berry Academy. After college and career took him elsewhere, he and his wife, Carolyn, settled in Rome, Ga., to raise their family. Eventually, Earl served as Assistant to the President at Berry College.

His deep and continuing love of aviation as a pilot and flight instructor recently led to the naming of “Earl Tillman Drive” at the local Richard B. Russell Airport.

Storytelling comes as naturally to Earl as greeting a stranger or taking to skies. Often he is invited to be the after-dinner speaker at a corporate or community event or to speak to a church group.

Through the many years Earl has kept smiling — though life has brought its share of grief and challenges. Earl and Carolyn lost their son, Gary, and granddaughter, Hannah, to a small plane crash in December 2005.

Beyond the quilt-work of humorous stories that comprise this book, Earl tells of how that time of incredible loss and grief was met by kindness and grace. He offers hope that others will find such care in their sufferings.

“Each time I see a news report of someone losing a child or family member that is missing,” Earl writes, “I just hope they have a network of friends and family to support them.”

In addition to their faith-based hope, Earl said he and his family have found healing in remembering the times of laughter they all shared. He not only internalizes such positivity but conveys it to others — with a renewed sensitivity to those who experience the pain of loss.

“Even though you are hurting inside, you have just got to keep on smiling, remembering the good times you had together,” Earl writes.

He even offers something of a benediction: “For those who suffer loss, may you receive the comfort you need. May the tide roll back in your life and the mountaintops remind you to keep looking up. I hope you have a strong faith and believe that life’s greatest reward is to help someone else along the way.”

Earl’s good life — filled with faith, family, fun and flying — flows through the pages of this book. He is a welcoming friend, a storyteller and an encourager.

Get Earl’s book; it will make you smile. And get to know Earl by inviting him to speak to your group. His contact information comes with the book.

Both his written and spoken words bring needed warmth and joy amid the seriousness and cynicism that seek to pull us down. Joy comes in the morning — or anytime you read or hear Earl Tillman.

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