Calculating the number of Durham Academy alumni whose lives have been positively affected by Dennis Cullen is a problem worthy of the veteran teacher’s math classes.
First there would be the alumni Cullen has taught during his 41 years at Durham Academy. Then there would be alumni who ran track or cross country during Cullen’s 39 years coaching those teams. And be sure to include alumni who were in Cullen’s advisory or who liked to hang out in his room at lunch or after school.
The number would be impressive and the positive impact impossible to quantify, making it no wonder that Cullen will be the recipient of DA Alumni’s 2017 Faculty/Staff Legacy Award. The award will be presented at the Spring Alumni Reception on April 28 at 6 p.m. in the Upper School Learning Commons.
Cullen joined the Upper School faculty in 1976 and served as chair of the math department for 36 years. He was the 1994 recipient of DA’s Hershey Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2013 he was in the inaugural class of inductees for DA’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Before stepping down as track and cross county coach in 2016, Cullen won 39 state championships in boys and girls cross country and track, including a streak of 13 straight boys cross country championships, and he coached 196 individual state champions. The N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association named its girls 3A track and field championship trophy after the well-respected coach in 2015.
“Mr. Cullen was more than a coach and math teacher to me. He was a mentor and an inspiration,” said Virginia Reves Hall, a 1991 graduate and Middle School history teacher. “He brought out the best in me as a runner, believed in me as a math student, and gave all of his athletes and students the confidence, skills and respect that only a master teacher/coach delivers.
“With humor, dedication and caring, he challenged us, listened to us and cheered for us (often with tears in his eyes at the finish line!). He was a true role model for me nearly 20 years ago when I went into the teaching profession, hoping to be someone who could reach students in and out of the classroom — and he continues to be a cherished colleague and leader. I am grateful to Mr. Cullen for his wisdom, commitment and friendship.”
John Crumbliss ’90 remembers that “Coach Cullen never had to give a ‘locker room speech.’ He invested so much in us as a team — as individuals — that reaching beyond expectations just became the norm.
”It's unclear to me whether Coach Cullen's teaching had limits. His leadership went beyond the track. His intellect went beyond math. I guess his jokes had limits, but that's about it.
”Coach taught us that winning may be 95 percent mental, but it plays out on 100 percent of our days. Cold Tuesday mornings, hot summer weekends, the classroom or the track — there's really no time off when it comes to applying yourself. What made those championship teams was Coach's indefatigable commitment — we all came to practice ready to mirror it.”
Lower School PE teacher Costen Irons ’99 competed on Cullen’s teams for eight years as a student, and he succeeded Cullen as head coach of the cross country and track teams after having worked with the legendary coach as an assistant for many years.
For Irons, Cullen’s 39 state championships are “not what makes him special. What makes him special is how he invests all of himself in his work and into others, how he makes time for people and cares about people. He has been an extremely competent, decent, kind, funny, caring man for a long time at this place.”
Cullen will be the sixth recipient of the Alumni Faculty/Staff Legacy Award, joining Dave Gould, who was the award’s initial recipient in 2012, Ed Costello, Sheppy Vann, Tim Dahlgren and Barb Kanoy.