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Dallas Morning News, January 14, 2014

The thing about my Aunt Dorothy Cullum (or Auntie Mame as she preferred to be called) is that she came into her own in her 70s, with an Act Four, Five and Six that kept the Sea Cloud in business as she cruised the world with her family and latest gentleman suitor.  There were three of those, one after the other, all friends whose wives had died. Once through grieving, they gravitated straight to Aunt Dorothy. Because, as the world belatedly learned, she was fun.

It’s not that life was dull for Dorothy in her youth, or middle age, which lasted longer for her than for most.  It’s that she deferred — as so many women back then did — to the remarkable men around her: a banker father, universally admired (there’s an elementary school named for him), and a businessman husband with a witty, powerful voice in civic affairs (a boulevard near Fair Park bears his name).

That didn’t leave Dorothy much room to maneuver on her own.  Like many great women of the greatest generation, she lived mainly in the light of reflected glory.  When her husband fell ill, it consumed a lot of her Act Three.  But there was Dorothy, keeping watch at Baylor Hospital, wearing slender skirts and silk shirts with a style Stanley Marcus himself could not have improved upon.  Dorothy Cullum understood that style matters.  Style mocks death.  Style keeps death at bay.  And that’s exactly what she did for 101 years.

As her gentlemen friends passed on, she kept on going, often shopping for solace, until her children took away her credit cards.  She was none too happy about that.  Yes, her closet was full of clothes, but how could she keep her commitment to style with the fashions of yesterday?  Where Dorothy differed from many of her contemporaries was in her passion for the present.

As her strength ebbed and her options evaporated, Dorothy did what she could.  She went to the State Fair in her late 90s, with Libby Bennett, one of her few friends still alive.  They got a driver, took their wheelchairs and made the Midway as well as the evening news because Dorothy won an enormous teddy bear at a gaming booth.  “It’s un-American,” said Dorothy, “not to go to the fair.”

Dorothy Cullum certainly was not un-American.  Like the women of her generation, never was an obligation unmet or a significant occasion unattended. (Always sit near the front at a memorial, Dorothy advised, because nobody else will and the family will feel isolated and alone.)

When I heard Dorothy had left her house for hospice care due to pneumonia, I rushed to see her, frantic not to be too late.  To my surprise, she was quite alert despite her breathing difficulties, wanting to know where I had been traveling and when I had returned.  It reminded me of my own mother, who even when she was dying at Baylor inquired about an upcoming Fourth of July party.

These were not frivolous women, not these two — or others of that moment.  And they were the opposite of so much that we see today.  They practiced a discipline that required one to think of the other person, no matter what, and carry on as if there were nothing heavy in the air.  Remember that manners, like style, mock death.

Dorothy Cullum died last Thursday. She was one of the last of the truly great dames.

 

Dorothy Cullum attended a 1995 Spirit of Generations Awards Luncheon.

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