Months ago, Roy Pullam endured an open-heart surgery. Soon after he learned he had pancreatic cancer that has since spread to his lungs. He admits that he’s “near the end of my road.” He begins a phone conversation with the Hendersonian with a frank assessment: “I’m dying.”
Yet even in these moments when he’s struggling to survive and frightened of dying, the community advocate’s devotion to help the poor remains as strong as it’s ever been.
“Right now, (Henderson County is) in bad shape,” he said. “There’s a lot of poverty. As a community, we need to be consciously aware to address these problems. We can always do more.”
Pullam, 78, wants to be out doing the work he’s done for decades. But now, he can’t—not now as he battles to keep living. His body’s too tired, his mind’s not sharp all the time. He wrote in a recent group email he regularly sends, that “I feel physical strength leaving me; mental stamina comes and goes.”
Because of this, Pullam resigned from his position on the Salvation Army’s board member nominating committee and advisory board at its Nov. 17 meeting. He spoke at length about those people who came before him on the board and gave so much and his hope that the current board can continue to serve. He believes it will.
He shunned any individual praise that may be given to him, and instead praised those who’ve helped him along the way, in some cases for many years.
“The sum of the product is greater than the parts,” he told the gathered advisory board.
He recalled a Mother Teresa quote that has been integral to his service. In it, she said that we can not do great things, and can only do small things, but with God’s grace, those small things become great.
“It’s been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve the Salvation Army,” he said.
Pullam’s life has been one of service. That quickly shines through to those who know him best. In several interviews with the Hendersonian, his friends describe him as a man with a true “servant’s heart.”
That servant’s heart was borne from a boy who had very little growing up, both Pullam and his friends say.
Born in Providence, Pullam grew up poor. He said he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. “I knew the shame of being ragged and I knew how it made me feel…..which was much worse,” he wrote in another email.
He said he can still vividly recall every single item that came to him and his family on Christmas when he was 13 years old.
“I could not erase that image of the General Baptist Church crew pulling up in that old Chevy truck and bringing in a Christmas basket,” he wrote. “Even if I could, it would be the height of ingratitude. It was 65 years ago, but I could name every item in the basket. It was easy; there was not another bite of food in our house. The sting of watching both my parents cry froze the memory forever.”
Pullam recalled that after high school, he was all set to attend Oakland City College (now University) when his father had a stroke. His mother told him he had to stay home and help. Still determined to get an education, he enrolled at Henderson Community College. Because the family had no car, he hitchhiked to and from school for two years.
“When I was hitchhiking from Providence to HCC, I had faith that 1 in 5 cars would stop and give me a ride were it a normal day,” he wrote in an email. “I had hope that I would not be out there in rain or twilight when odds increased.”
Another story recounted by a friend and former student of his, Tricia Gerber, was of one Thanksgiving when Pullam’s family had only parched corn for dinner. He went to bed, hearing his mother crying outside his bedroom door.
It was moments like these that seared into Pullam’s soul the need to help those less fortunate and led to his lifetime of charity work and community involvement, Gerber said.
He’s made his mark.
Butch Puttman, a magistrate and also the Salvation Army advisory board chair, has known Pullam for more than three decades. He calls Pullam “the most distinguished man in Henderson County.”
The Hendersonian attempted to compile a list of all that Pullam has spearheaded in his years in Henderson. This article will list what has been gleaned, but most likely it will be incomplete, for it is hard to recall all Pullam has done.
His work includes:
- Taught at Henderson City High School and North Junior High (later Middle) School, where he led many extracurricular activities. Pullam started in 1968 and retired in 2008
- Headed the Jr. Optimist program at North. Pullam estimates that he and his students collected 110,000 canned goods and 8,000 coats throughout the years that went to the less fortunate. He was also the Optimist president
- Started a program to gather and fix bicycles. Pullam said the program gave away 2,000 bicycles
- Started a program to find and clean computers that were also given away. He said that program is responsible for 131 computer gifts
- Member of the Henderson County Public Library Foundation Board
- Member of fundraising board for the Preston Arts Center
- Started the community garden at the Henderson County Detention Center. The garden every year donates produce to the Salvation Army, Women’s Addiction Recovery Manor, the Gathering Place and the Fr. Bradley Shelter for Women and Children, he said.
- He also did work with Riverview School and organized the Salvation Army Golf Scramble
- Started a program at the YMCA that allowed every third-grade student in Henderson County school system the chance to get free swim lessons. In the nine-week program, students were bussed to the YMCA during the school day to receive instruction
- Started and ran Bonnet Productions, in which high school and junior high school students interviewed newsmakers throughout the state. Bonnet Productions video recordings are housed in the public library. They have also been added to the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Melissa Roberts was one of the students who packed and schlepped equipment to conduct interviews, crisscrossing the state with other students, Pullam and his wife, Velma, during summers. She said she was a part of the crew from her seventh-grade summer till the time she graduated from high school.
Another common thread in interviews with Pullam’s friends is his propensity to find people who needed help. Roberts counts herself as one. She said she was a “backwards, shy kid” when she entered North. He placed himself, Roberts said, in a profession in which he can “guide and teach and mentor.”
She would have never been able to do her work now with the Kentucky Career Center, interviewing multiple new people each day, without Pullam’s earlier influence.
“I can’t think of anybody else who’s been able to do that much for that many people in this community,” she said.
“Roy has a way to bring the best out of us,” said Puttman, his old friend. “He’s such a sincere person. He’s just a remarkable, remarkable human being.”
Rick Groves, another Salvation Army advisory board members, said one of issues that Pullam has opened his eyes to is poverty in Henderson County—not that it’s there, but just how much there is. He said Pullam “explained the urgent need.”
He’s also shown Groves he’s a man of action.
“Whatever he does, he goes full force,” Groves said. “He wants to get right in the mix.”
Former Salvation Army advisory board chair Erick Dalton said Pullam’s passion is infectious. He said witnessing Pullam’s Christ-like attributes has been a great gift to him.
With Pullam, we’re “seeing it put to work,” he said.
Pullam said one method to measure poverty is by school’s Title I designation, which is given to a school when at least 40% of a school’s population is deemed to be living in poverty. Every school in the Henderson County School system is a Title I school, Pullam said. He said that the Salvation Army feeds 200 people each week, gives vouchers to help pay utilities and supplies hundreds of cans of food.
“I know with all we’re doing, we’re not reaching all the people that need to be reached,” Pullam said.
He finds himself currently watching, not taking action, which is an unfamiliar place for him. As he battles for his own life, he is frustrated that he still can’t be in the thick of it helping others.
“Now, I am a witness instead of an advocate,” he wrote. “I preferred to get my hands dirty, to be in the mix. It makes me very uncomfortable to be on the sidelines while there is hunger in my city.”
Pullam recognizes that Henderson is, and has always been, a very generous community. But there’s nothing that says “we can’t do more,” he said.
With the Christmas season upon us, he’s urging others to give.
“Coins in those red buckets put beans in those bowls,” he said, adding that the ringing of the bells from the Salvation Army volunteers are a “mercy call saying we need the money to help the most vulnerable in the community.”
And yet at this time, he’s also thinking of himself and Velma, his wife of 50 years, as well as dear friends and former students.
“Just like I attempted to figure the odds in getting a ride home (from HCC), I now figure the odds for all kinds of circumstances related to my cancer,” he wrote in an email. “I hope for a healing even though I know the reality is that I am terminal. I have faith in the promise Jesus made to his followers. While I have faith that suffering and death are preludes to something far greater than I can comprehend, I hope for a longer time here with Velma and friends.
“…I have hope as well as faith. Without hope and faith, the world is much darker than anything cancer promises.”
This article first appeared in the printed edition of the Hendersonian, which was published Nov. 28. It has been updated with additional information.