Ham and Wry: Humor Helps Dean Dull Weather 34-Year Career

Dean Dull keeps things in perspective: You certainly have to be a person who is not going to fret and carry every problem in the world home with you.
By Gary Goettling
Dean Dull On a balmy autumn afternoon in 1982, hundreds of students had gathered at Grant Field for a pep rally. Amid the cheering and music and colorful splashes of white-and-gold pom-poms, Buzz cavorted on the field delighting the crowd with his antics. He jumped and fell, teased cheerleaders and hugged the goalposts, and then he did an unspeakable thing. Buzz removed his headgear and revealed-James E. Dull, dean of students.

"The place went wild," Dull laughed. "I guarantee you that no one there thought there was any difference between me and the real thing. Some people even came up and asked. Do you play Buzz all the time? Are you really Buzz?"

Dull's playful sense of humor has become as familiar to generations of Tech students as the whistle that sticks not far from his office window.

After 26 years as Tech's dean of students--longer than anyone else--Dull is in the middle of a transition inot retirement. But although he leaves his position next March, he'll still be an active member of the Tech community.

"I've been asked to work with the [Georgia Tech] Foundation and the Alumni Association, and talk to a lot of alumni groups," Dull said. "I do a little of that already-talking about my years at Tech and that sort of thing."

His years of experience provide a unique perspective for Dull, who asserted that Tech students today are "more innately intelligent" than their forebears. Paradoxically, they are taking a little longer to graduate, he noted.

Another noteworthy change has occurred in the makeup of the student population. There was only a handful of blacks and women attending Tech when Dull took over as dean of students in 1964. "A very definite goal even back then was to increase the diversity of the student body," he said. "We've made a lot of progress since then, and we'll continue to make progress."

Some things at Tech have not changed, he added. Its students have consistently shown "good leadership characteristics- almost like a higher degree of maturity," said Dull, who also praised the "competitive attitude" of Tech students.

He likes to cite a survey done in about 1960 that sought to identify the differences between students at Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The results, Dull explained, were summed up in the answer to one question: If you had an opportunity to invent the light bulb or to produce it, which would you rather do?

Tech students chose producing the light bulb, Dull said. And I think you'd get the same answer today. This is a very competitive place, and that's what defines the Tech person more than anything else."

As a youngster growing up in Connellsville, Pa., Dull's future seemed preordained.

"My dad was a railroader, ' Dull said. "I thought automatically that I was going to work on the railroad-the Baltimore and Ohio-because railroaders' sons got first priority for jobs."

A self-described "half-ankled" runner in high school, his only exposure to college came from track meets held at various area universities. But all that changed the day he graduated from high school.

"My mother was standing on the porch when I got home and she said, 'Jimmy, do you want to go to college or don't you?' That was the first time college had ever been mentioned at my house.

"It was one of those times-and I preach this to students--when you have an opportunity to start again. They may be planned or unplanned, but all of a sudden they happen. It's important to take advantage of those opportunities because they can change your life."

In 1946, Dull entered what was then called Slippery Rock Teachers College. Following graduation and two years in the military, a succession of career "accidents" steered him toward student personnel work. By 1957, Dull was picking through a long list of jobs available in the field, looking for a place to settle down. The very worst of the lot, he said, was at Georgia Tech.

"It had the lowest salary and the worst situation physically-the dormatories were a wreck, that kind of thing," Dull recalled.

But the job had an edge in the most important consideration. "Most places wanted you to do what had always been done, and I didn't want to do that," he said. "Here, they gave you free rein to do whatever you were capable of doing, and that's the reason I came to Tech."

Dull said George Griffin, who hired him as assistant dean, joked that the starting salary of $5,200 was one dollar for every student.

Upon Griffin's retirement, Dull was promoted to dean of students.

Ask Dull to identify his most important accomplishment, and his response is unequivocal.

"I feel very proud that we've met everything we projected in our long-range plan," he said.

Not long after being named dean of students, Dull was disturbed to see that the campus 20-year plan didn't adequately address student affairs.

"So the president at the time, Ed Harrison, said to go ahead and make my own plan, and I did."

Dull's blueprint covered 1964-1990, and included many facilities that students may now take for granted: the Student Center, Student Athletic Complex and several residence halls. The Student Services building now under construction was also part of the plan, as was the theater it will contain.

"Can you image Georgia Tech being 106 years old and never having had a real theater? It's unbelievable."

When the theater opens next year, it will bear the name of the man most responsible for its existence--James Dull.

Dull has a special affection for theater, and he readily admits to enjoying an audience.

"I enjoy show biz, I enjoy entertainment, said Dull, whose credits include acting and directing in numerous skits and faculty club shows over the years. He also claims credit for developing the mascot Buzz and designing the costume. He also formed the Reckettes, whom he coached for five years.

And then there was the time Dull and a group of students gathered on the steps of the Chapin building to open an ABC-TV morning news program with: "I'm Dean of Students Jim Dull and I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech. Good Morning America!" "I guess I'm just kind of a hamish guy," he grinned.

What does it take to be a dean of students?

"You definitely have to be a 'people person'," Dull mused "And you have to be willing to set certain standards and be consistent--not preach one thing and do another."

He adds that being a good student of humanity "is helpful because it provides experience to clear with students' problems. "You certainly have to be a person who is not going to fret and carry every problem in the world home with you," he added.

Dull admitted that keeping the problems he encountered in perspective was a hard thing to do, "but in later years you have a lot more confidence in how to help somebody "

Much of his advice for the exigencies of student life are summed up in what he calls "Dull Truisms "

"Think of the reasons why you should do something, rather than why you shouldn't do something," he said. "And I tell students to always tell the truth because that way you never have to remember what you said."

Dull admonishes freshmen to do their very best academically because "it really counts down the road when they're looking for a job."

Mindful of the rigors of the Tech curriculum, he encourages them to stick with the program and graduate, and promises to be with them at commencement.

It's a promise he still makes to freshmen, even though he is retiring.

"I'll be there," Dull said. "It won't be in any official capacity, but I'll be there."