Tuesday, March 5, 2024 Mar 5, 2024
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MR. BOB CULLUM, looking down from heaven where he has successfully talked himself past St. Peter, leaving the venerable apostle in gales of laughter, probably isn’t all that pleased to see this small column.

1 can hear him, see the twinkle in his eye. “Get on with the business, boy. The papers did enough eulogizing and carrying on when I died. Get on with the job, son.”

Over the years he didn’t like a lot of what he read in these pages, so one last squabble won’t bother either of us.

Bob Cullum knew all about squabbling. His special grace was in knowing how to stop it. Or at least to deflect it to some lesser matter. Or, failing that, to have a little fun with it, to smooth the ragged edges.

In 1975, when this magazine was much younger, our editors came up with the bright idea of publishing the salaries of the city’s business leaders, public officials and would-be celebrities. As the issue went to press, it dawned on me that as a courtesy to those so selected for the honor, we ought to give a little advance notice. So I wrote each a note mentioning that their salaries would soon be on the newsstand.

Most people, it seems, would rather have their left hand cut off than to have their next-door neighbor know how much they make. The switchboard lit up the next day, the callers sputtering with outrage. One caller went to the district attorney; another offered to buy every single copy of the press run.

So when my assistant announced that Mr. Robert Cullum was on the line, I braced myself before picking up the phone.

“Allison, you gonna print my salary?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, some damned fool of a PR man came in here waving your letter and saying how insulting and undignified it was gonna be to have my salary printed in that lowdown magazine of yours, and you know what I said to him?”

“No, sir.”

“I said to him if it’s so damned insulting and undignified to have my salary printed in that magazine of yours, then we’re just gonna take ourselves to the board of directors and have that salary raised!”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Cullum.” At least I think I said yes, sir. I was laughing so hard when he hung up I don’t know if I got it out.

That was vintage Bob Cullum. You didn’t cry over spilt milk; you were so gracious to the spiller that the next time, when it really counted, you’d get him to bend a little in your direction.

He helped to build a city that way.

I mark his passing here because it is, in itself, a passage for Dallas. When the Dallas Institute did a study of important world cities in our culture, one feature that distinguished these cities from lesser places was a particular style of leadership that continued from one period to the next. Dallas today is very different from the Dallas R.L. Thornton promoted and built in the Thirties and Forties, and very different from the Dallas Bob Cullum, John Stemmons and Erik Jonsson promoted and built in the Sixties. Can that special style of leadership, adapted for a different day, carry us into our future?

A little more than a year ago a group of us from the magazine called on Bob Cullum and John Stemmons. We wanted to talk about this city’s future from their perspective of the city’s past. For five hours we listened, laughed, argued and reasoned together. These two men, retired from the daily business of civic politics, were more sensitive and alert to the dangers and possibilities this city faces than anyone I’ve met before or since. They pondered mournfully over continuing racism in our society (“our number-one problem”), skipped to our long-term water supply, argued forcefully against single-member districts (I now agree), fretted over public education, blasted businessmen who don’t concern themselves with civic problems.

About a month later I received an invitation from the two of them to a fried-chicken luncheon at the Sheraton. It came at a time when the city council was bitterly split along racial lines over some issue; the headlines were full of epithets that were becoming more bitter each day. The luncheon was in honor of a retiring pastor of a large South Dallas church. Bob Cullum’s answer to the controversy was to throw a luncheon? “Don’t you see, Allison, that when we’re fussing with each other is just the time we ought to be eating with each other. When you have to look at the other fellow across the table, and both of you are fumbling over a damned piece of greasy chicken, you might start thinking you’re as big a fool as he is.”

So Bob Cullum is dead. It can be said that the days of the Bob Cullums were over long before he died. But don’t ever say that to me.

A city must be led and shaped and nurtured. A city must be thought about and fretted over. A city needs a little laughter when tempers flare and a little fellowship when tension fills the air.

“Yes, sir. Mr. Cullum.” How many others have hung up the phone chuckling over some joke -and in the back of their minds rethinking a little what they had planned to do or chiding themselves a little over what they had already done.

Give us just one man like Bob Cullum inevery generation and what a special placewe could make of Dallas.

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