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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Dr. Colby Kullman

Dr. Kullman’s infectious laugh, smile and positivity were loved by many and I enjoyed knowing him. He was a favorite of students, as evidenced by his receiving the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award. Dr. Kullman died on Aug. 9 and we’re republishing this Q&A in his memory.  

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up? Please talk about your childhood, parents, siblings and any crazy aunts and uncles.   

Kullman: I grew up in the Bronx, New York, in the first gigantic apartment complex of its kind – Parkchester. Like “Levittown,” it was middle-class America, first advertised at the 1939 World’s Fair as a way of life in the future. My parents were the first residents in their apartment and stayed until their deaths (1939-1973). Here, 50,000 people lived in seven- and twelve-story buildings in an area of approximately one square mile. No dogs and no bikes were allowed.

My brother Russell and I led double lives as we spent summers at Northport, Long Island, with our Aunt Inez and Uncle Joe Russell who were wealthy and owned two lovely summer houses. They stayed in the one on the water, and our family lived in the one just across the street on the hill of Bayview Avenue. I was on the swim team of the Northport Yacht Club, and we had free use of my uncle’s boats which were moored in the water by his house. It was upper-class in every way. We had two sets of clothes: one for the Bronx and one for Northport. The two lives seldom met. My aunt and uncle sent us to college. Most of our childhood friends from Parkchester were not so lucky. Guilt about these privileged summers followed us all of our lives as we continued to keep the two worlds apart.

Brown: Where did you go to school? 

Kullman: I went to Our Saviour Lutheran High School in the Bronx, grades 1-12. It was a quality education with only 22 in my graduating class. Christian values have been an important part of my life as a result of this significant experience. I graduated later from DePauw University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Kansas. The doctoral program at KU emphasized teaching which has always been my first love although I also kept up with and usually enjoyed publishing which enabled me to receive tenure, and two promotions according to schedule.

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Kullman: I loved swimming, movies, board games, and traveling as a child. We were not allowed to play on the streets near our Bronx apartment building so I learned to enjoy the other children in our 12-story building who were also kept at home.  Many of us were latch-key children with three or more hours alone after school as all of our parents had to work. Daycare was not an option. Yes, we got into trouble, but we were good children. My family had an old toaster with a frayed cord that gave shocks if used improperly. We were not allowed to touch it. Afternoons, the Benson and Weisenthal boys, Janet Earl and Eulalie Hatch, would come to our apartment to play games and do home work. We would join hands and my brother Russell would shake the toaster until it gave all eight of us a wallop of a shock. We would fall to the ground laughing and then cried, “Let’s do it again!” We were all excellent students in school and went on to college.

Across from our second-story apartment was the Palace – a first-class movie house in the 1950’s and a “C-“ one in the 1970’s. The theatre marquis blinked on and off through our living room windows. We grew up loving movies and went every Saturday afternoon to children’s shows and often on evenings to adult movies. Dying of cancer in 1973, my mother said, “I hope there is something good playing at the Palace when I die so the funeral guests will have a proper title to look at.” We all got to stare at The Tower of Screaming Virgins

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss story began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Kullman: After a successful Modern Language Association interview in NYC, I came to Ole Miss for a campus/town visit.  I immediately found a hero in chair Evans Harrington. Ben Fisher was the perfect escort who took me about “gown and town” while Gerald Walton gave me the most thorough interview I have ever had. For three days, I was treated royally and went home on a high that lasted for weeks. I was never without friends here – not even for a day. My 35 years at Ole Miss often rank at the top of my nightly gratitude list. During the summer of 1984 just weeks after I moved to Oxford, I attended my First Faulkner Conference. What a turnon!  I realized then that I had been awarded a five-star academic appointment at a great university. 

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?  

Kullman: William Faulkner brought the town of Jefferson and county of Yoknapatawpha alive for me during my college days in the early 1960’s. I always wanted to explore this world on my own, little suspecting that I would have half-a-lifetime to do so. I had known also about Ole Miss and Oxford from the Meredith enrollment and the immediate aftermath of this horror. One of my first publications dealt with my family’s Baltimore Album Signature Quilt in The Mississippi Folklore Register, which was then under the direction of Ole Miss Professor George Boswell. I was honored to meet him during the interview as he was another of my heroes. University of Kansas Professor James B. Carothers and his wife Beverly were delighted when I was hired here as they come every summer for the Faulkner Conference. They expressed the highest praise for The University of Mississippi. In 1984, Ole Miss came highly recommended by many sources.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life? Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Kullman: My Freshman English Composition teacher and pastor of the local college Presbyterian church, Dr. William C. Young, was the best of mentors. Were it not for his guidance, I would not have become an English professor, a career I have been thankful for since my junior year of college when I earned money tutoring others by helping them with their writing. Dr. Young and I became close friends until his death in 1980. With my parents deceased by 1973 and Bill on his own, we adopted each other legally in Kansas’ Douglas County Court as father and son. This was especially helpful when he contracted cancer in 1978 and needed the help of a loved one and family member.  I had the opportunity to give back.

Dr. William C. Young, my adoptive father

Brown: You received the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award. Please talk about this.  

Kullman: I cannot imagine an honor I would rather have. I believe C. S. Lewis when he said, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’s, “We need education in the obvious, not the obscure” and Marie de L’Incarnation’s, “What we learn with pleasure we never forget” also ring true when I think of the power of one, the power of a teacher. There is irony in this outstanding teacher award because I have perhaps learned more from my students than they have from me. The Outward Bound program teaches that “many of our limitations are self-imposed” because “we are what we prefer.” I learned this one more time when I was in the Faculty Technology Lab trying to enter the details of my Faculty Activity Report to a computer program that was way over my head. A young undergraduate was assigned to assist me with this six-hour task. After about 20 minutes, he looked at me and said in the most polite, diplomatic way, “Professor, how do you expect me to help you when you have brought that horrible attitude with you.” I immediately started listening and behaving properly.  From that time on, whenever I went to the Faculty Technology Lab, I looked for my young professor and was pleased to be his student.

 Brown: What was the worst book you had to read for school? How about the best book you had to read for school?

Kullman: My first year of teaching, I was given a list of books that went with the English 101 writing class. Erich Segal’s “Love Story” was featured with three weeks scheduled to teach it. One 50-minute period of doing my best with it was too long. I had eight more classes left. Good grief! That’s when I learned to be creative with my own materials.

After reading Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” I decided to use it as the cornerstone for my Advanced Composition class at Ole Miss. Because of it, I was able to teach many of life’s greatest lessons in 16 weeks. To the year I retired in 2012, that book remained my favorite text and I managed to teach it every year.

Brown: I know that you invited many writers to your English classes. What author is a must-read for college students today and why?

Kullman: For over 20 years I taught a seminar at the graduate and undergraduate levels on “The Plays and Films of Tennessee Williams.” Because of popular culture, movie versions of his plays, and various prejudicial views of America’s famous gay playwright, he is too often thought of as a popular culture lightweight. Nothing could be further from the truth. His play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was taught as the only original creative work in a critical theory class taught by Dr. Doug Robinson. During the course of the semester, Doug used this one work to expose his students to over a dozen different critical theories that apply to it. I am still connected with three of the many theatre festivals held annually in his honor and I consider Williams America’s greatest playwright.

Brown: Do you think people read more or fewer books now than say 25 years ago?

Kullman: I think most people (including me) read fewer books today than they read 25 years ago. I once read 700-page 18th Century and Victorian novels with great pleasure. Today, the world is moving so fast that is not as easy to find the time to devote to this pleasure. Consequently, plays and movies have been the focus of my reading and viewing passions. 

Brown: Please tell us about your involvement with the Teacher Appreciation Award at the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival.  

Kullman: Thanks to Panny Mayfield, Kenneth Holditch, Eva Connell, and Jen Waller, I have been involved with the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival for 25 years.  Mayfield and Holditch planned it and invited me to join them during the first year of the Festival since I was teaching a course on the “World of Tennessee Williams” at Ole Miss at that time. Held in October, this festival is always a highlight of my year. The best and most important part of this program is the junior and high school acting competition. Way over 100 students and their sponsoring teachers arrive from all over the state of Mississippi to deliver three-minute monologues and 10-minute scenes from Williams’s plays in competition for money awards that go to their schools’ drama departments. The teachers who coach and bring these young folks to Clarksdale give up much of their free, private time to do this. For almost 10 years now, we give the annual Panny Mayfield Teacher Appreciation Award to one of these worthy educators.

Brown: What three words best describe you?

Kullman: Diligent, Caring, and Loving

Brown: Bradford Cobb, Katy Perry’s manager, credits you with much of his success because you were willing to write letters or recommendation and encourage him to pursue his dream job. Tell us about your relationship and when did you see Mr. Cobb’s potential.  

Kullman: Among Bradford Cobb’s many gifts are intelligence, enthusiasm, and passion. When excited about just about anything, his energy fills the room and inspires others. The quality of Bradford’s writing, the depth of his inquiry, and his mature insights into the best literature immediately identified him as one of Ole Miss’s very best. He has always lived life beyond the borders of traditional education. Music was at the heart of his soul. Every aspect of it appealed to him. He climbed over many walls that were erected to keep him from his dreams. Like Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, he refused to let his mind stand still, to get along by going along, and shuffle lockstep with everyone else. 

Katy Perry with Bradford Cobb

Brown: Do you have a favorite quote? What is it and why is it your favorite?

Kullman: “Translate anything you know about trouble into such concern for individuals and the social welfare so that someone will someday have cause to thank God that you once suffered so that you understand” – Harry Emerson Fosdick.

One morning of her sophomore year, one of my students awakened blind. In the emergency room of Oxford Hospital, she discovered that this is often the way people learn they have multiple sclerosis. Indeed, she had MS. In an instant she changed from an Ole Miss party girl to an adult ready to deal with life maturely. With treatment, her eyesight came back to normal, but she had much to learn about her disease and how to treat it.  Over the years, she has kept her MS under control, is on several national and local MS boards, has starred in a MS movie, and has a permanent job working with people with various kinds of disabilities. I cannot think of a better illustration of Fosdick’s truth.

Brown: To what do you attribute the biggest successes in your life?  

Kullman: Twelve years of a Christian education complete with loving parents, teachers, and friends taught me to celebrate the eternal verities: kindness, compassion, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, and love. It is true that it takes a community to raise a healthy child.

I have also learned to look in the mirror when criticizing others. I almost always see myself as guilty of the very thing I am criticizing in others.

My students have been my teachers.As a freshman at Ole Miss, Lori Sneed was paralyzed in an auto accident; and after significant rehabilitation time in Atlanta, she returned to Ole Miss for her last three years as an English major.  She had winning ways: intelligence, an inquiring mind, a love of others, and great beauty. Of the 5,500 students I taught since 1968, she was my favorite. Whenever I now fret over the problems of aging, I think of what Lori said in class of “crippled” Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”:  “Get a LIFE, Laura!” Lori had a life thanks to incredible strength of character supported by her loving father “Shorty,” mother “Patti,” and brother “Johnny” and by so many others!  She died in 2017 living longer with paralysis than without. 

Shorty, Lori, Patti, & Johnny Sneed Photo by Colby Kullman
Patti & Shorty Sneed with photo of Lori (above them) October 2018 Photo by Colby Kullman

Brown: You have ideas about adult adoption that are key to your life.  Explain.

Kullman: For eight months, Richard Herzog and I went through paperwork to adopt one another. On Oct. 31, 2018, he legally became my son, thanks to the action of Judge/Chancellor Whitwell in Lafayette County Chancery Court. The paperwork has been amazing and took seven months. I even have a certificate of attendance from a parenting class. 

When I was in the hospital for over three weeks during the summer of 2014 and came home to visiting nurses and home healthcare workers from 2 to 6 p.m. every day, I was never alone thanks to my friends. My family was much too far away and working so they could not help. I know they wanted to. For eight weeks that summer, Richard came to Oxford from Nashville for three to four days every weekend to take care of my needs. By the day I arrived home, I had a hospital bed (without railings) in the study, a Bath-in-a -Day walk-in shower instead of a tub, a mechanical chair, and everything made to order for me. Richard did all of this. Some in my medical team were reluctant to share information with Richard since he was not family.

Richard and I have been friends since 1984 when he was an Ole Miss undergraduate. Since that horrible summer of 2014, he has come here once every month to six weeks to check on me. Before my brother Russell died in 2015, he and I discussed making Richard my son and executor with medical power of attorney. He approved. Richard’s wife Cindy and children Emily and Clay also approve of this decision.  

Cindy, Emily, Clay, and Richard Herzog Photo by Colby Kullman

My nephews and nieces Jeni, Tracie, Ken, Christopher, and Maria and cousins Sandy and Dave are most supportive. It makes such good sense. For good reason, they are all at the top of my “Gratitude List” every night.  

Brown: If your life were a book, what would the title be?

Kullman: “The Art of Living: An Existential Recipe for Surviving in What Often Appears to Be an Often Confusing, Seemingly Irrational World”

Brown: What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Kullman: I love escaping into a world of absurdist humor.  I believe that:

“Laughter is the best medicine” – Reader’s Digest

“A merry heart doeth good” – Proverbs

“Humor is a drop of sweetness in the often poisonous cup of life” – Henry Fielding

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / F**t, and everyone leaves the room” – Steve Martin

Brown: Where’s your favorite vacation destination and why is it your favorite?

Kullman: New York City is my favorite destination as I grew up in the Bronx where I had a happy childhood, I learned to love the life of the arts that were limitless in the Big Apple, and I still have many friends living there to celebrate life with whenever I visit. For living day by day, Oxford always comes in first place. My New York family, in turn, loves to visit me in Oxford.

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement? Do you have any hobbies?  

Kullman: When I retired, I was surprised to find that I had been sleep-deprived most of my life. Consequently, I now sleep in beyond the 7 a.m. alarm, and begin my day with coffee, news, and email. To remain active in my mid-70’s, I plan for every day with at least one meal and one entertainment – always with a good friend or two. Whether a lecture, a movie, a play, a concert, the Science Café, or board meeting, I realize that mental and physical activity are essential to every stage of our lives – especially old age. I currently serve on the boards of Friends of the University Libraries and the Ole Miss Retirees Association, and I review submissions for Theatre Oxford’s  “10-Minute Play Competition.”

Brown: What are some things that you have marked off your bucket list?

Kullman: I love travel and have always wanted to see our National Parks. Thanks to Paulette and Dick Spielman, the parents of Ole Miss student Jennifer Naimark and her husband Mike Naimark, I was for five summers in my 50’s and 60’s invited along on their family vacations and was able to see close to a dozen of our best national parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Death Valley. Paulette is an English teacher and Dick a biologist so I was seeing and hearing things most folks never imagine. The Spielmans even had music appropriate to some of the viewings. I shall be forever grateful to Jennifer for sharing her parents with me.

L-R: Jennifer Spielman Naimark, her father Dick Spielman, Colby Kullman, Jennifer’s mother Paulette Spielman, and Jennifer’s husband Mike Naimark in Yellowstone

I have learned that:

“Happiness is wanting what you already have” – Constance Congdon

“Expect nothing; appreciate everything”  Jill Bess

“I find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough” – Emily Dickinson

“Make the most of time! Take advantage of the time you have on earth with your loved ones. Don’t waste your breath on anger, jealousy, self pity. Rather use time to say the things you want to people before it is too late. Every breath is precious” – Morrie Schwartz

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. For questions or comments, email her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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