Smithfield Native Bequeaths $2 Million Gift To Johnston County Schools

A Johnston County native who passed away two years ago has left a $2 million gift to the Johnston County public school system.

Nan Ogburn Cullman was born in Smithfield in 1929. At the age of 15 she won a scholarship to attend Julliard School in New York. She later studied at Columbia University and the University of Heidelberg in Germany.  She performed with regional opera companies and choral societies including the Westchester Opera Company.

A singer, explorer and the wife of the retired vice chairman of Philip Morris, Hugh Cullman, she was very active with civic organizations.

Upon her death in May 2015, she bequeathed $2 million to benefit the local schools.

The Johnston County Board of Commissioners announced Monday – after more than a year of work – they have created the Nan Ogburn Cullman Education Endowment for Johnston County, which will be administered by the NC Community Foundation (NCCF).  The NCCF presently oversees more than $220 million in charitable grant-making funds.

Johnston County Attorney Jennifer Slusser said that in accordance with Cullman’s wishes, grants will be awarded to enhance student learning in the areas of art, travel and leadership with preference being given to grant requests from the Smithfield Selma High School district, the area where she lived as a child.

An advisory committee comprised of 7 members will assist with the grant process. It will include one member each from the Board of Commissioners, Johnston County Principal’s Association, Johnston County Education Foundation, Johnston County Art’s Council, SSS High Principal, Johnston County Community Fund Advisory Board, and a representative from the Cullman family.

Johnston County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow, who was present for the commissioner’s meeting on Monday, said, “We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate. It’s very prestigious and humbling.”

According to Nan Cullman’s obituary:

In 1951, she married Hugh Cullman, son of Mr. and Mrs. Howard S. Cullman, Port Authority chairman and Broadway “angels.”

The Cullmans made their home in Westchester County, N.Y., for the next 40 years.  She was active with civic organizations, serving on the board of Youth Consultation Service of New York, the vestry of Christ’s Church, Rye, and as a volunteer in the recovery room at United Hospital in Port Chester, N.Y. She was also a long-term board member of the N.C. Symphony. In 1993, Mrs. Cullman and her husband moved to Beaufort and subsequently to Pittsboro.

In her 40s, Mrs. Cullman took up mountaineering and other extreme travel pursuits, riding camels with the Tuareg tribe through the Hoggar Mountains of southern Algeria, climbing to the Mount Everest base camps from both the Nepalese and Tibetan sides where she almost lost her life when she was blinded and obtaining one of the first visas to hike through Bhutan.

She almost lost her life again on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro where she was overcome by altitude sickness. Said one of her daughters, Alexandra Haslingden, “Long before Sheryl Sandberg challenged women to lean in, my mother was jumping in.”

As recently as 2013, Mrs. Cullman was hiking in the Dolomites and this year was planning an expedition to the Scotland highlands.