Gamma Phi Beta's 'Mom' remembered for love of the house

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 4:58 p.m. CST; updated 12:35 p.m. CST, Friday, March 5, 2010
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Women of Gamma Phi Beta honor house 'mom,' Donna Pulliam, who died on Feb. 25 from cancer.

COLUMBIA — For the last 22 years as housemother of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house, Donna Pulliam kept the door to her room on the first floor open. Last fall, the only difference was the “Get Well” cards that covered it.

“In college, life is so hectic and things can change so fast,” said senior Courtney Cebula. “But every time I would come home from a long day of class, Mom was always there.”

Sorority Women Hold Fundraiser in Pulliam's Honor

To honor their housemother, the women of Gamma Phi Beta are holding a fundraiser on Saturday. The Crescent Closet clothing drive — a reference to the sorority's chapter symbol — will raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. All proceeds will be donated in Donna Pulliam’s name.

The event will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Gamma Phi Beta chapter house, 808 Richmond Ave. "Gently used" clothing is priced between $1 and $5. Unsold clothing will be donated to local charities.

“We wanted it to be something everyone could participate in,” said Courtney Cebula, co-chair of the event. “And then of course, we’re all sorority girls. We all have clothes at home that we don’t wear — that we’re hoping we’ll fit into — but we probably won’t.”

In addition to the clothing sale, there will also be a bake sale, raffle and jewelry sale.

“This is a fun way to honor and celebrate 'Mom' and to get other women in the community involved,” Cebula said.

“It’s a girls day,” co-chair Senior Abby Altum added with a smile.

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Pulliam, who considered the chapter house her home, felt a deep connection to the sorority. After undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer in Columbia, Pulliam moved to California in December to live with her son and get further treatment. Even under hospice care, she continued to watch over the sorority house that she loved.

“This past Wednesday, she was calling in payroll, food orders and whatever supplies the house needed from her bed,” her daughter Joy Castillo, 48, said.

The next evening, Thursday, February 25, 2010, Pulliam died from cancer. She was 70.

“Seventy was so young for somebody with so much life in her,” Castillo said. “She was keeping a 'bucket list' up to the final days of her life. That was my mom.”

Her energy came in part from the young women who surrounded her for the last 22 years.

"They keep you young,” Pulliam said in an interview with the Missourian last December.

Seeing Pulliam at work, it was clear she managed much more than a chapter house — she made it a home for the 70 or so women who live there.

“There is such a feeling here, such a spirit in this house,” Pulliam said, while she was still living in Gamma Phi Beta at 808 Richmond Ave. “It’s important to me that it feels like home — where you feel safe, where you feel loved.”

The women, who gathered to share stories about Pulliam last Sunday, remembered her caring role as a mom. Senior Katie Boucher described the night several women were watching "The Family Stone" in the living room. Pulliam, who heard the women crying, came out of her room to check on them.

“All of us were in there sobbing, and Mom walked in and goes 'What’s wrong?' and put her arms around us,” Boucher said.

After the women explained it was the movie that made them cry, Pulliam cheerfully offered them her copy of "Ratatouille."

“That’s one of my favorite memories of her,” Boucher said.

Over the years, Pulliam organized Christmas celebrations, birthday parties, movie nights and other special events for the women living in the Alpha Delta chapter of Gamma Phi Beta.

"It’s so incredible to think about all the women that she’s been a second mom to for over 20 years that she’s been here,” Cebula said. “That’s hundreds and hundreds of women. Besides our sisterhood, that is something that will bond all Alpha Delta members together.”

Two years ago, the women and alumnae organized a 20-year reunion for Pulliam. On one of the cards, they wrote: "When we show up and you answer the door, it’s like coming home."

Pulliam, who lived in the chapter house longer than any of her other residences, also opened it to her own family.

“Both of my girls learned to walk at Gamma Phi on my mom’s clock,” her daughter, Castillo, said. “To my three kids, that’s Grandma's house.”

But there was a lot more to Pulliam than her role as housemother. Pulliam, who was born July 25, 1939, in Denison, Texas, originally pursued a career in music.

"She taught piano lessons as long as I lived at home,” Castillo said. “Music was a big part of our home.”

Pulliam studied music in college, where she met her husband Dr. Cameron Pulliam, who died earlier. They were married in December 1957. The couple, who had a passion for education and faith, instilled these values in their two children, Castillo and Dale Pulliam, 50.

“It was God first, family second, and education third,” Castillo said. 

In the late 1960s, the Department of Education offered her husband a position in American Samoa. The couple settled in on the island of Tutuila in the Pacific. While her husband ran a satellite education program on the island, Pulliam taught a kindergarten class. After living there for two years, they decided to return to the United States to further their children’s educations. The couple later divorced.

"My mother didn’t want to come back,” Castillo said. “That was probably her favorite place on Earth.”

Pulliam never lost her connection to American Samoa, Castillo said, and dedicated the rest of her life to providing books and computers to schools on the island. She sent books to other places in need as well. 

“She used to say one of the greatest misfortunes in life is to not have access to books and literature and reading,” senior Abby Altum said. “She loved to read. She was always reading.”

Pulliam often shared her life stories with the women of the sorority as they sat around the dinner table each night. But even after two decades, they continued to uncover new layers of her life.

“When you show up at Gamma Phi and she answers the door, you would never have known all this stuff was there,” Castillo said. “She was a very unassuming person.”

After her death, the women found multiple watercolors that Pulliam had painted. They reflected her love for travel, people and life.

“None of us had any idea that she painted,” Cebula said. “Now those are going to be with the house forever.”

The paintings are now framed and hanging on the walls in the dining room. 

One painting, with balloons flying through the sky, has the phrase “Celebrate Life” written across the top.

“We just looked at that one and had to take a deep breath,” Cebula said. “Because that’s how she was.”

Pulliam is survived by her brother, Bill Simmons, 68, of Billings, Montana; her two children, Castillo of Columbia and Dale Pulliam of Lake Elsinore, CA; 11 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and the hundreds of women who knew her as "Mom" in Gamma Phi Beta.

A memorial service will be held for Pulliam at 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 6, at Memorial Baptist church, 1634 Paris Road.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to help support the literary foundation that will be created in Pulliam’s honor.

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