Lil enjoyed listening to musicians performing live at the Hog for many years. She volunteered since the beginning of the Coffeehouse. She continued to volunteer all the way up to when we closed and moved to streamed concerts in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
Lil, you will be missed by all who knew you. Thank you for your support of the Coffeehouse. We will always think of you when a uke player is on stage.
MADISON - Lillian Tong was born in Rochester, NY on June 29, 1949 to Nancy (Lim) and Karl Tong, joining older sister Vivian to complete their family. Her father was a research chemist at Kodak while her mother managed the household. As one of the few Chinese families in the city at the time, their social life was largely centered on the close-knit Chinese community, though Lil appreciated the pot-luck dinners much more than the Chinese lessons that preceded them. The family's relatives were all living in California so the cross-country car camping trips every few years to visit family were highlights of her childhood. She enjoyed camping and visiting National Parks along the way, a theme she carried for the rest of her life.
Lillian was an excellent student and leader at Irondequoit High School, where she graduated in 1967. Remarkably, she maintained relationships for over 60 years with several other girls in her class, some of who m were in the same elementary school and Girl Scout troop. She looked forward to meeting with this group of "49ers" every five years in Rochester or Florida until the last meeting in 2019.
Lured by their Honors Program, she decided to go to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she majored in psychology. Lil quickly developed a serious interest in research and published several papers on psychophysics of visual illusions (e.g. "Probing 'twixt Poggendorff Parallels") as an undergraduate. She decided to continue studies in the physiology of vision and stayed at UM for graduate school where there was an active visual sciences community and completed a Ph.D. in electrophysiology of color vision in 1977.
Also of importance during this period, Lil met her future husband Tom Yin, a graduate student in engineering, through connections in Ann Arbor's relatively small Chinese student community. Their love and commitment to each other spanned over five decades. They married in Rochester in 1972. In an unconventional but perfect-for-them choice, instead of a traditional honeymoon, they asked for a canoe and backpacking equipment, and spent a week blissfully camping and canoeing in Northern Ontario. There ensued a few years when they were separated as Tom did post-doctoral stints in Buffalo for 9 months and then Baltimore for 3 years while Lil was finishing her dissertation in Ann Arbor. Coincidentally, Tom's field of study was also neuroscience. When Tom got a faculty position in the Department of Neurophysiology at the University of Wisconsin in 1977, they moved to Madison into the house that they have occupied for the last 45 years.
In 1980 the family expanded with the arrival of Eric, age 23 months, whom they adopted from Milwaukee. The family increased further in 1984 when they travelled to Taiwan to adopt a baby girl Laura, named for the favorite books of Ingalls Wilder. Numerous complications in the adoption process caused this trip – originally intended to be a matter of a week – to stretch into a month. The adoption was only possible through the help of one of Tom's aunts and the intervention of one of the close family friends from Rochester.
Lil continued doing research but the challenges of two young children and long experimental hours made her move to an administrative position with the Neuroscience Training Program in 1989. After returning from a sabbatical year in Australia in 1992, she was offered a job with the Center for Biology Education and with it she found her new passion: working with UW faculty to improve teaching and campus diversity. For the next 14 years she was instrumental in multiple campus-wide initiatives to engage faculty in undergraduate education, including Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment (CCLE), Instructional Materials Development (IMD), First Year Interest Groups (FIGs), Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) and the National Academies Summer Institutes, to name just a few. As she liked to put it, she was "teaching the teachers", despite the absence of any formal teaching credentials. Her success was reflected in being chosen to be a member of the Teaching Academy, one of the Outstanding Women of Color in 2014, and to the Campus Diversity Planning committee. In addition, she was on the Asian-American Studies Program Faculty Advisory Committee since its inception.
Throughout her life, Lil enjoyed travelling, a passion she shared with Tom and instilled in their children. Whether in China in the early years of that country's reopening to Western visitors where she was invited to give a research talk to the Institute of Physiology in Shanghai; Australia, England or continental Europe for academic conferences; backpacking in one of the great American National Parks; canoe camping in the wilderness expanse of Boundary Waters; or countless other places, Lil always had immense curiosity for cultural destinations, respect and love for being in nature, and a thirst to make the most of every moment of vacation. Notable were extended stays of a year in Brisbane, Australia in 1991 and 6 months in Shanghai in 2017, which gave her the opportunity to dive into the local culture in depth. Her literature collections and insistence on everyone waking up early to see every possible thing made every trip an adventure.
On top of working and raising a family, Lil made time for a remarkable number of hobbies, most of which she mastered to an astonishing degree. Although she always claimed to be only a passable pianist, she accompanied on the piano both of her children as they learned to play their own instruments. She was an enthusiastic participant and volunteer in the Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse and the monthly Music Night for many years; this was an outgrowth of her lifelong love of folk music that was stimulated by many nights spent in the Ark, the legendary folk music venue in Ann Arbor. She has also been in countless recorder and ukulele groups. In later years she honed her skills in fiber arts, where she excelled at almost every step of the process of turning a sheep into a knitted work of art, sometimes dyed with indigo harvested in the back yard. A frequent volunteer at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival, where she demonstrated spinning techniques, she even considered buying an alpaca to help with the lawn mowing duties at home. Her last foray into fiber arts was to take a weaving course from a local expert. The many scarves, sweaters, hats, mittens, slippers, and other beautiful things she made for others are cherished by those who were lucky enough to receive them.
Lil was overjoyed with new additions to her family later in life. Eric and Jodi's three children: Josh, William, and Michael, were a constant source of joy. She enjoyed bragging about their exploits, spoiling them to death, sharing with them her love of arts and crafts, and entertaining them when they came to visit Madison.She taught Laura's long-time partner Sarah how to knit and the three of them enjoyed many hours playing ukulele and singing together. After retirement Lil was also very active in multiple ukulele groups in Madison including the Madison Area Ukulele Initiative (MAUI) and the Fitchburg Ukulele Network (FUN). She and Laura had fun volunteering to teach at One City Schools during the pandemic. She joined the board of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and was the president-to-be until she became sick in her final year.
After a courageous battle with gall bladder cancer, Lil passed away peacefully at home surrounded by family on January 16, 2022. She is survived by her husband, Tom; son, Eric (Jodi Shields Yin); daughter, Laura (Sarah Hallas); grandsons: Joshua, William, and Michael and sister, Vivian Nagy. She will be remembered with love by the countless people whose lives she touched, enriched, and made better.
A memorial service will be held at the First Unitarian Society in Madison at noon on Saturday, March 12, 2022. The ceremony will be live-streamed and the event will be available on YouTube afterward. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Lakeshore Nature Preserve (https://lakeshorepreserve.wisc.edu/donate/), Carbone Cancer Center at the University of Wisconsin (https://www.uwhealth.org/philanthropy) or Wisconsin Public Radio (https://give.wpr.org/page/15344/donate/1).