‘You Had Me at Truman’

truman bullard

By MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

There’s a name for that irresistible force that drew four generations of former student-musicians together on campus this spring. They call it “the Truman effect,” and if you’ve made music at Dickinson, you’ve likely succumbed.

The catalyst, Truman Bullard, was a music professor and choirmaster at Dickinson for 35 years until his retirement in 2000, and he remains a visible presence on campus. On April 27, alumni ages 22 to 68 joined current music faculty members for a weekend celebration of Bullard’s 75th birthday that included a party and singalong with Bullard at the piano and a standing-room-only concert of Brahms’ German Requiem by the Dickinson Choir, Collegium and Orchestra featuring soloist Anne Jennifer Nash ’96. It also marked the launch of the Bullard Music Studies Support Fund.

Some attendees, like Nash, pianist George Bowerman ’12 and church choir-master Rob Burlington ’93, are professional musicians, while others, like Bill Fisher ’84, who spearheaded the weekend celebration, and Joseph Sobel ’70 simply enjoy music-enriched lives. All said that Bullard’s inspiration runs deep.

“Through his musicianship, his commitment to technical mastery, his musical scholarship and his gift for teaching, Truman Bullard both deepened and expanded the way we choral singers heard, felt and understood music,” Sobel wrote in a scrapbook commemorating the celebration. “The experience, over time, was transformative and, on many occasions, transcendent.”

“He also is a mentor and friend to generations of alumni, and his influence continues long after graduation, because he truly cares and connects,” said Fisher, noting that he has joyfully performed Handel’s Messiah every year since Bullard recruited him to the choir in 1980.

“When I asked for help getting the word out about these events,” added Fisher, “one alumna responded, ‘You had me at Truman.’ ”

Fisher notes that the Bullard scholarship, which funds music lessons for Dickinson students considering a music major, is the second formal recognition of Bullard’s enduring influence. He and wife Beth, a fellow musician-professor, also support an international-music concert series established by alumni in their honor, and the couple regularly attend campus concerts.

The Bullards also perform together as part of a quartet, and Truman occasionally fills in as a bassoonist in the Dickinson Orchestra. As a result, he’s met second-generation fans like Holly Kelly ’15 and Leah Beshore-Naftalin ’03, who heard tales of Bullard’s irrepressible passion for his subject before experiencing it firsthand, along with fellow instrumentalists like Jinsen Wang ’13, who consider Bullard a mentor and friend.

Ongoing fundraising for the Bullard scholarship ensures that “the Truman effect” will continue. “This is vital work, because the experiences students have when they commit to [music ensembles] … provide opportunities to learn about themselves and build confidence and mastery by taking creative risks,” Bullard said. “Music is a magical, meaningful way to make that identity quest. It’s also, for me, a lifelong source of beauty, connection and joy.” 

Learn more

Read more from the summer 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published July 22, 2014