The Students

Leslie Sullivan, the director of A TOUCH OF GREATNESS, first met Albert Cullum while she was studying to be a teacher at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. While making the film, she helped organize a reunion for Cullum and his former elementary school students. In October 1999, more than 40 of his students—many who are also seen in A TOUCH OF GREATNESS—came from across the country to gather in their old classroom in Rye, New York to celebrate the work of “Mr. Cullum,” who was now nearing his 80s.

Read what some of his students had to say about his teachings—and find out what they are doing now.

Cathy Coshal
“It was a tenet that he worked by that any experience is a good experience, you have to try everything. Mr. Cullum would bring in food for a party, but it was Mr. Cullum’s idea of a party, which was a little different than your average ten-year-old’s idea of a party. You always had to taste everything. You always had to try it. You didn’t have to like it, you had to try it. That was the first and only time I’ve ever eaten a fig.”

Coshal, now an emergency room doctor practicing in a Chicago hospital, recalls Cullum’s classroom Congress in A TOUCH OF GREATNESS.
Cathy Coshal talking to the camera.

Joan Emery
“He bent the rules a little bit, he didn’t do things the conventional way in the classroom. We sort of knew he was on the verge of getting in trouble, by letting a cat in the room for us to write about, or messing up the room with the desks, or by making lots of noise.”

As one of Cullum’s students, Emery played The Nurse in a production of Romeo and Juliet. She is now a genetic counselor living in San Francisco.
Joan Emery talking to the camera.

Laurie Heineman
“Besides Mr. Cullum being such a tremendous influence on me as a person and on my life, actually Joan was. Playing St. Joan, being St. Joan at that age… because here is someone who is totally full of courage, someone who doesn’t acknowledge doubt.”

As a fifth-grade student in Cullum’s class, Heineman played St. Joan in a school play. Today, she is an Emmy Award-winning actress and art therapist.
Laurie Heineman talking to the camera.

Steve Lawson
“How many ten-year-olds were dying to go to school every day?…. I was in fifth grade 1959-60. And this was of course the end of that long snooze known as the Eisenhower Era. Education was pretty standardized, so when a teacher like Al Cullum came along, who was a breath of fresh air—a mild way of putting it—[he was] more like a tornado or a cyclone came along and proceeded to blow all the cobwebs off the system.”

A writer and film festival director today, Lawson got his first taste of the dramatic arts in Cullum’s Shakespeare Festival, playing roles such as Romeo and Macbeth as a young boy.
Steve Lawson talking to the camera.

Louise Lipman
“We were doing a ballet and we were all snowflakes and we had these headbands with little snowflakes on them. And when Cullum was directing us and telling us what we were supposed to do, he told us it didn’t make any difference what happened, we just had to be emotionally honest. What happened was my headband fell off, and I knew just by instinct that it was not right to go and pick it up. That’s what he meant by being emotionally honest.”

With Anne Stillman, Lipman provided narration for some of the original black-and-white footage seen in A TOUCH OF GREATNESS. She is now a psychodramatist in New York City.
Louise Lipman talking to the camera.

David Pugh
“My parents were thrilled [with Cullum’s class], because my mother was getting tired of getting called down to the principal’s office to get another lecture about her son who can’t behave right, who can’t do what’s being asked. They were just glad that I finally connected and that I was excited about school.”

In his elementary school years, Pugh was an “anti-school, anti-authority” student who flourished in Cullum’s classroom. As an adult, he worked as a public school teacher in a New York City high school.
David Pugh talking to the camera.

T. Anthony Spearman
“More often than not, Mr. Cullum was one of us. He was right there on our level, we could identify with him…. Mr. Cullum attempted to do all he could to go beyond cultures, and that in a real sense he brought the world into the classroom because he did so many different things to incorporate teaching and learning.”

Spearman credits Cullum with encouraging his students to read “all types of literature.” Today, he is a pastor working in a small North Carolina community.
T. Anthony Spearman talking to the camera.

Anne Stillman
“At the time I played that role we were children in the sixties, and there were really very real parallels with the Civil Rights movement. The particulars at the time were kind of hazy to me, but I knew that there were people who were not afraid to stand up, but who were being beaten and in some cases killed for what they believed and for trying to right a wrong. I’ve never forgotten that very young experience of playing this person who was willing to defy every authority in order to do what she felt was right. “

Playing Antigone in one of Cullum’s plays was an experience Stillman has carried with her for life. Today, she is an historic preservationist in New York.
Anne Stillman talking to the camera.


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