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Everyday Heroes: Although the ‘poorest kid in school,’ Pullam went on to inspire rich lives

Roy Pullam won’t ever forget the nagging discomfort, the humiliation, the desperate nature of growing up in a poor family. Truth be told, he doesn’t want to forget because, even in the difficulty of those times, “there was always someone who came along and helped me at just the right time,” he recalled.

Those bittersweet memories spurred the middle school teacher to do wonderful acts of caring for the vulnerable of his Henderson community. And Pullam‘s leadership inspired hundreds of young people under his tutelage in the Junior Optimist Club to do likewise.

Roy Pullam (Photo provided)

A prolific reader, Pullam always sought personal direction from the words of noted writers to set a vision for his future. His childhood reminded him of the words written by noted American author John Steinbeck.

“I identified with the Joad family in Grapes of Wrath,” he said of the Depression-era family that moved to California to seek a better life. “My father couldn’t read but he was a story-teller and could do all his math in his head..”

And then there was his mother. “We (the children) came first. And, if there was anyone sick in the community, she would go visit them,” he said. “When she died, it was one of the largest funerals ever in our community.”

Now in his mid-60s and retired from active teaching, Pullam recollects clearly a particular prayer he uttered as a boy living in the small Kentucky town of Providence, in Webster County, where his mother worked many low-paying jobs because his father was disabled.

“I prayed for something to eat. We were hungry,” he said, “and the next day this truck pulled up in front of our house and brought us a basket of food.” The timely gift was from the local Providence Missionary Society.

He noted that his clothes were given to him by the family’s church, and that he “was the poorest kid in the school.” Classmates ignored him; Pullam’s self-esteem teetered near zero most of the time. Not an encouraging world for a young boy to try to handle.

“I often felt shame about the experience,” he said. “Other kids thought of me as odd…and I was odd.”

But as Pullam grew older and navigated his challenges, he gratefully received assistance from some personal angels like David Middleton, a man who helped him get a college scholarship. Despite the financial help, Pullam noted that “I had to hitch-hike to get to Henderson Community College.” He later graduated from Murray State College.

He was mentored by an aging teacher, Vivian Crowe, who once came to Pullam‘s rescue when another of his high-school teachers humiliated him in front of the class, telling young Roy he shouldn‘t expect to graduate.

“Mrs. Crowe flew down that hallway to that teacher and told him, ’Don’t mess with Roy Pullam. He’s mine!” said Pullam. “And I was hers. She gave me books and made me recite poetry. She taught me what caring was all about.”

After graduating with a teaching degree from Murray State, Crowe was “the first person I went to see. She gave me dreams,” Pullam said.

The benevolent acts of recent and former students at North Middle School, where Pullam taught for most of his over 30-year career, attest that Roy Pullam gave those young lives plenty of dreams to savor, too.

Here’s a sampling of the students’ work through Pullam’s leadership in the service club he sponsored:

-They gathered over 110,000 cans of food for the Salvation Army, along with 8,000 coats dispersed to disadvantaged people.

-The students sent thousands of books to U.S. soldiers and bought them phone cards.

-Club members raised money to put 78,000 pairs of glasses into the hands of medical missionaries.

-They supported Special Olympics events, visited seniors in rest homes, worked on Habitat for Humanity projects.

-Frequent Christmastime visits warmed the hearts of children at the local hospital, and many poor families enjoyed the gifts given by Pullam’s students.

-The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and American Heart Association received over $12,000 from their efforts.

– Over many years, the Riverview School, a local special-needs school in Henderson, benefited by raising a total of over $102,000 by Pullam’s kids by doing raffles, fairs and other activities.

Pullam, it bears no argument, lives a life that is clearly tied to the betterment of others. He’s been a groundbreaker in initiating programs to solve pressing needs. He started the Henderson Drug Court with Judge Steven Hayden, giving those plagued by addiction a structured, accountable, and highly focused way to break free to a more fulfilling and productive life—and to stay out of jail.

Along with a physician from the Kentucky Health Department, Pullam designed the first regular local program in the state to do a screening for sickle cell anemia. “A simple test that lot of people didn‘t know about,” he said.

Through the YMCA, he helped Dale Osterman start a class to teach third-graders across Henderson County basic swimming skills—a program that’s likely saved lives.

Pullam is currently involved in a bicycle-repair program. The repairs are being done by local jail inmates, and the bikes are given to poor kids in the area. “The inmates are excited and are doing a tremendous job,” said Pullam.

Through his career, Pullam frequently used his filmmaking skills for both teaching and recording oral history. He produced the anti-drug film, “Fourth Down and Too Far to Go..”

And what might be his proudest venture was working with Jim Long to create the Bonnet Film Co., which produced over 600 audio-visual tapes of notable Kentuckians. The work involved Pullam’s students, and together they traveled thousands of miles to gather what has become a treasure of oral history. The collection is archived in the Henderson County Public Library.

Pullam also has helped produce promotional videos for local organizations like the Henderson Literacy Association and the United Way.

As one might guess, Roy Pullam’s sensitive, loving heart can be quite easily hurt, too. Leslie Newman, a Henderson attorney, former student and admirer of Pullam, recalled a prank that was played on her teacher when she was a senior.

“Some of the smartest boys in our class…decided one day when Mr. Pullam was out of the room to turn it (the desks) around. They moved his desk from the front of the room to the back and turned the desks around and let me tell you there was a lot of activity in a very short amount of time,” said Newman.

Though Newman characterized the deed as a “prank, not done with malice by any means, but out of mischief,” it caused Pullam to cry. “He was so hurt that his students had shown what he considered disrespect…so it made it a sad story in a way because no one wanted or intended to hurt him but the memory of it still makes me chuckle.”

Newman summed up Pullam’s positive influence as being “grateful to have had a teacher like him, who cared.” She remembered fondly how Pullam “followed my success through college and later through law school,” and how “he openly and fondly expressed his love for and devotion to his wife, Velma.”

Pullam said his marriage to Velma in 1972 was “the best thing I’ve ever done.” And although the couple had no children of their own, “she was like a second mother to the students all those years,” he said. “On all those long bus trips, she sewed the kids’ clothes and stayed up with them all night when they were sick and barfing.” She steadfastly stands behind her husband and his projects today, sharing his compassionate nature.

Karen Denton, mother of Kurt Denton, a former Junior Optimist under Pullam, praised his influence as a teacher and good citizen:

“Roy has done so much for all the kids in the Junior Optimist Club, others at school and in the community. He has been a mentor and friend to so many in Henderson County and I certainly appreciate his part in helping my son become the person he is,” she said.

Kaylie Hester, a former president of the club, said of Pullam: “I know no one more dedicated or more committed to make our community a better place. He is an inspiration for us all.”

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores, and Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, Steve’s fifth book, will be released in early 2013. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

To read more from Steve Flairty, click here.

This story is taken from Steve Flairty’s 2010 book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #2

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