Time to Enjoy the Beautiful Things

The Bullocks worked hard to build their dreams. That's why they chose to make life a little easier for others

Omar Mouallem - 05 January 2017

Chantelle Bowden remembers her mom's little black budget book very well. Once a month it was splayed on the kitchen table, around which Chantelle and her brother were expected to sit and learn about their single-parent family's cost of living. "It was a struggle sometimes," says Bowden, now a medical student at the University of Alberta. "We lived with my grandparents for several years." The point of their mom's teachings wasn't to lower their expectations but to have them learn that they'd have to work harder than other kids they knew growing up in Chilliwack, B.C.

Sixty years earlier and two provinces over in Saskatchewan, a teenager named Michael Bullock heard a similar message from his single mom. Growing up during the Great Depression, he didn't need to be told that a dollar was hard-earned. He laboured in wheat fields and nickel mines and competed with men who were much older for scrap metal and rail jobs.

Decades later, the lessons learned during his hardscrabble youth would connect Michael to Bowden and 15 other young people who grew up with the knowledge that nothing worth having comes easily.

As a young man, Michael had his sights set on becoming a doctor but after he completed high school, his mother persuaded him to choose a different field. Medical school was too expensive, she said. It was also very hard to get into. After the Second World War, medical schools across North America were swamped with applicants fresh off the battlefield.

Instead, he got his undergraduate degree, trained as a medical technologist in Saskatoon and then worked at the local hospital. But he never abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor. At 30, he applied to what is now the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and, thanks to impressive references and plenty of work experience, was accepted without an interview.

Determined to save for school, he spent very little and rarely slowed the pace. During every break from his studies, he drove roughly 2,600 kilometres - on roads that, today, would hardly be considered suitable for back alleys - to work at three medical centres in Oakland, Calif. Higher wages in California justified 20-hour driving days and a round-the-clock work schedule. Bullock graduated in 1960, not only debt-free but with considerable savings.

Nobody handed Michael his medical degree - he earned it through dogged determination - but he still considered the experience a privilege, says his wife, Cathy. Her husband was so grateful for the opportunity that decades later, in 1991, the couple established an award to support UAlberta medical students who are self-reliant and have earned money to help pay for their education.

Michael died in July 2015, just weeks after his 90th birthday and 50th wedding anniversary. He left behind a treasure trove of papers and letters filled with anecdotes about his life, the importance of hard work and how he and Cathy wanted their award to ease the struggle of students who were most likely to succeed despite adversity.

The Bullocks believed debt was a scourge and wanted to sponsor students with a proven work ethic - the ones who worked after class and took summer jobs instead of summer vacations. They wanted to help students like Bowden, who completed her degree in physical therapy debt-free, thanks to seasonal work and a volleyball scholarship. Now, one of the first students to enrol in UAlberta's joint MD/MBA program, she dreams of opening her own psychiatric clinic.

In 2011, Bowden was excited to receive the Dr. Michael and Catherine Bullock Award, which provided financial support for her entire four years of medical training. "It felt like recognition of the hard work and frugality I had already accomplished," Bowden says. "If I hadn't won the award I probably would not have been able to afford the MBA and would have had more scholastic debt to work off after graduation."

"Chantelle's a go-getter," says Cathy, who continues to advise on the selection process from her home in Saratoga, Calif. It was Bowden's work ethic - house-painting in the summer and doing administrative work to save for tuition - that put her over the top. The Bullocks wanted to reward students like Bowden by allowing them to take part in the kinds of social activities that Michael wasn't able to enjoy until much later in life.

In a handwritten letter dated July 22, 1995, he wrote: "No one should have to work as hard as I did by choice." His nature was to keep his head down and his sleeves rolled up. He didn't play sports. He didn't see movies. He didn't attend his graduations. "I didn't marry until 1965," he wrote. "My wife found me. I certainly never had the time."

Cathy was also raised to know the value of a dollar. The Stanford graduate and former Spanish-language teacher was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Italian immigrants - her father was an opera singer - and worked in canneries and vacation resorts through the summers to help pay for university.

The difference between her experience and her husband's, she says, is that things came to her more easily. She enjoyed her summer jobs, and her parents' hard work afforded her the best possible education, whereas Michael's work was gruelling and he never received outside help. Practically by force of will, he propelled himself to a pediatric residency at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the U.S., the Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, where in 1961 he received $300 a month, working 105 hours a week. His patients were often the children of movie stars, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Two years later Michael joined a pediatric group in San Jose with two partners.

The Bullocks, who didn't have children, saw the UAlberta award as an opportunity to leave a legacy and help hard-working students like Bowden, who is pictured with Cathy in Saratoga in these photos. "We wanted them to be well-rounded," Cathy says, "to enjoy the beautiful things in life - music, art, literature - and take time to smell the roses."

While it's uncommon for students and donors to develop a relationship, the Bullocks wanted to see how their support and mentorship would change someone's life over time. Through the years, Michael and Cathy hosted the award recipients at their home and even travelled to Edmonton to attend their graduations. Many of the 16 students have kept in touch with the couple long after graduation. "In our hearts we consider them our foster children," Michael wrote in one of his many letters. "They are a great joy."

Bowden, who invited Cathy to her wedding this past February, remembers Michael as gentle and kind. "Their philosophy is 'see a need, fill a need,' " Bowden says. "I feel like I gained another pair of grandparents."

Since 1991, the Dr. Michael and Catherine Bullock Award has provided financial support to students for their entire four years of medical training. Students are selected for their integrity, frugality and determination - qualities that demonstrate self-reliance.

For more information, contact Kim Taylor at 780-492-4719 or kim.taylor@ualberta.ca