A TRIBUTE TO EVELYN PULLIAM (1953 – 2020) BY DR. GLADYS CAINES COGGSWELL
We at the Missouri Folk Arts were very sad to hear the news that previous Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program apprentice Evelyn Pulliam of Kennett, Mo. (1998 and 1999) recently passed away. We thank master storyteller, author, and community scholar Dr. Gladys Caines Coggswell for writing the following tribute to Mrs. Pulliam, which we’re sharing here in its entirety.
by Dr. Gladys Caines Coggswell
Too many folks have crossed over to the other side. This year, the death rate was exceptionally high in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It makes my heart heavy with grief. Among the many, Evelyn Pulliam—one of my best friends, apprentices, and storyteller—is gone.
Evelyn J. Pulliam was born on January 24, 1953 in Utica, Mississippi to Clementine Thomas and Lucius Turner. She died November 12, 2020 at the Pemiscot Memorial Hospital in Hayti, Mo. Evelyn was raised by her mother and stepfather Andrew Thomas, Sr. in North Lilbourn, Mo. Her husband Robert L. Pulliam, Sr. (married June 29, 1974) is in shock. He says that she wasn’t even sick.
Robert, Sr. and Evelyn are the proud parents of three wonderful children: Robert Pulliam, Jr., Andrew Pulliam, and Kenya Williams, who are all successful in their communities and careers. While Robert and Andrew moved to different locations to pursue their dreams, Kenya chose to remain in Kennett, Evelyn’s adopted home. Kenya is married to Tommy Williams and is the mother of three children.
According to my conversations with her daughter, Evelyn lived long enough to witness her first grandchild graduate from high school. “She was so happy,” Kenya said, confirming that family was always a priority. “She was also held in the highest regard by many other families, including her own, her church family, and those in the community who she never turned away when they came to her for assistance or advice.”
Kenya said, “My mom talked to me about many subjects. Most of all about her love of God and life. I can’t believe she came so far after all that she went through in her early years. She instilled in us the importance of reading. As a librarian at Dunklin County Public Library for over 25 years, [Mom] exposed the community to various educational programs, movies, books, and literary events.”
In the early 1990’s, Evelyn hired me to tell stories at the library and in the local schools. When I arrived in Kennett to prepare for the events, after 1 a.m. in the morning, the motel people in charge were sleeping hard. I didn’t know anything about Kennett and felt lost. Then, I remembered I had Evelyn’s number and, though hesitant, I had to call. She was so gracious to me but upset with the hotel about me not having a place to stay. She had already paid for my lodging. Evelyn got in her car, picked me up at the motel, and took me to her home where I spent the first night of my visit. When morning came, she got the motel straightened out. They had to give her a refund for the night I didn’t stay there.
I had a great time storytelling in Kennett, and we became best friends. I gave performances and workshops for students, teachers, and the community. Thanks to the support of Evelyn and the Dunkin County Library, I was telling stories at schools in Kennett, Caruthersville, Hayti, and other towns in Missouri’s “Bootheel.”
Later that year, Evelyn agreed to submit an application with me for the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program (TAAP), and the panel chose us as one of eleven teams to work together. I must say, though, I learned as much from her as she did from me. She was my apprentice in TAAP for two years, and we remained friends for thirty years.
Dr. Dana Everts-Boehm, then Director of the Missouri Folk Arts Program, recalls that she was surprised and pleased by Evelyn’s love of storytelling. “Her face lit up when she told stories of her loving, close-knit family. Her account of the North Lilbourn, Mo. community where neighbors shared everything they had with other neighbors was very touching. No one ever went without food.”
Dr. Everts-Boehm also shared the following: “Evelyn also had some dark days in her reflections. One of them I especially thought of today was the story about when the town was quarantined due to the sickness of diphtheria. Times were hard; money was scarce; and they were afraid. The doctor would place a quarantine notice on your door if you were sick or had been exposed and you couldn’t leave your house. You couldn’t even go to work.”
Dr. Everts-Boehm recalled learning about those hard times and drawing comparisons. “It reminds me somewhat of what we are going through today. We are being quarantined due to the COVID-19 virus. People are losing their homes, their jobs, and their lives. Everything is so uncertain. Evelyn got through that terrible time though, and I think we will, too. Evelyn was one of Dr. Coggswell’s most inspirational apprentices. She shared her experiences with the public, always giving people hope. You might say this master-apprentice team was a match made in heaven and now Evelyn has joined many wonderful storytellers there. She will be welcomed.”
Dr. Lisa Higgins, the current Director of Missouri Folk Arts, spoke fondly of Evelyn. Higgins helped document a panel of storytellers at a meeting of the Missouri Folklore Society in Hannibal, when Evelyn shared her experiences as recorded in Stories from The Heart, published in 2009 by the University of Missouri Press and compiled along with other stories by Coggswell.
Dr. Higgins spoke with admiration when she said, “We are so sad to learn that Mrs. Evelyn Pulliam has passed recently, but we are happy that she took the opportunity to join Dr. Coggswell in the apprenticeship program in the 1990s. Over the course of two years they truly cultivated the art of storytelling. Mrs. Pulliam lovingly spoke about growing up in the Bootheel with the closeness of family and community. In re-reading Mrs. Pulliam‘s contributions to Stories from the Heart, I am reminded of her ability to vividly and succinctly capture highlights of her childhood, a time of historic changes that shaped her family and neighbors in their small and once remote hometown.”
I myself recall listening as Evelyn shared stories of her family, who experienced the end of sharecropping, the end of hand-picking cotton after the advent of machinery, and the end of school segregation laws that closed North Lilbourn’s small, five-room schoolhouse. Evelyn and her peers, then, were bussed to a nearby, prominently white, public school where they were totally ignored by the teachers. Evelyn said that her school experience was horrible: “Most of it was a total tear-jerking blur. I graduated, but never felt as if I really had a total high school experience.” Evelyn vowed that she would never let any of her children go through what she did. She taught them to be respectful, but to never be afraid to speak up for themselves. I remember her telling me that some former classmates had invited her to the high school reunion recently. She said it would have been very nice if they had recognized her presence years ago.
Evelyn was formally recognized for her accomplishments when she earned the prestigious Acorn Award from the Missouri Humanities Council in 1997. She also earned many awards for educating people about self-prevention of AIDS and addictions, as well as the array of resources available to individuals and families.
Rest in peace, my dear Evelyn. We love you, will remember you, and will cherish your stories that are recorded in our book. The memories that you left behind and talked about will live for generations. Your life, your storytelling, is not in vain.
Published December 8, 2020