It was a bus accident that changed the course of Mike Cullen's life. It nearly killed the little boy from northern Minnesota, but it set him on his path as a lifelong educator and an advocate who left a lasting mark on the state's vocational technical schools.
Cullen died May 19 at age 98.
Cullen was born to Irish immigrants who made their way to Little Fork, near the Canadian border, in the early 1900s. He grew up in a log cabin with eight brothers and sisters while the men cut lumber.
His mother was a great believer in education, and she sent the children by bus to school.
"He was in a terrible bus accident," said his niece, Millicent Dosh. "He was in the hospital for a year."
As a result, he lost his left shoulder joint, she said, a disability that made him think differently about what kind of future he could have.
His mother sent him to the University of Minnesota to get the education he would need to get a job — an act of courage for a young man who knew only the North Woods.
"He was afraid of the city," Dosh said. "My mother nurtured him."
He came away with a degree in agricultural education, and moved around the state for a few years working in agriculture. He met his wife, Helen, while working in Harvey, N.D.
They married, and, in 1948, moved to Willmar, where he taught farming to high school kids for the next 25 years. He was also head of the Future Farmers of America, and took teams of kids and their livestock to shows and county fairs, where they slept in the barns.
But he never stopped educating himself. Cullen returned to the U for a master's degree in vocational agricultural education. He also completed a Bush Foundation Fellowship, and three U.S. Department of Education scholarships at Rutgers, Ohio State and the University of Colorado.
In 1955, an old army barracks in Willmar was converted into a vocational technical institute. Cullen became one of its first teachers, and a few years later, its administrator, a job he held until his retirement in 1983.
"He used to say there were two kinds of administrators," Dosh said. "The kind that micromanages, and the kind that delegates and affirms those below him."
He was the second kind, she said, and as a result, he built a strong school. The teachers he hired had to be very good at their skills, and they had to be very good communicators, she said. "He didn't care about degrees," she said.
Later, when the Legislature decided to overhaul higher education in Minnesota, Cullen lobbied fiercely against the decision to fold the state's vocational-technical schools into the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Dosh said. That, he believed, put academic degrees above skills and teaching ability.
"The students who chose to go to vo-tech were kids skilled with their hands — carpenters, plumbers," Dosh said. "They were not academic types. Mike felt that the new system does not encourage skills."
Cullen spent much of the last years in his life caring for his wife of 70 years, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
After she died, he moved to a senior residence in Maple Grove, where he became friends with everyone, Dosh said.
"We loved our Uncle Mike," she added. "He was warm and genuine with everyone."
He is survived by his children Michael Cullen Jr. of Sanibel, Fla., Mary Zillmann of Maple Lake, Patricia Lundquist of Leawood, Kan., and Joe Cullen of Minneapolis. Services have been held.