She gave them sound advice born of her own life's experience, and with her self-deprecating and unconventional humor, she had Catawba College's May 14th Baccalaureate audience laughing unabashedly.
Mamie McCullough, Ph.D., a popular author and motivational speaker from Dallas, Texas, was the homilist for the service held in Omwake-Dearborn Chapel as part of Commencement Exercises for the college's Class of 2010.
Her friend of more than 20 years, college alumnus and trustee, Bryan Applefield '66 of Dothan, Ala., who called McCullough "the ultimate encourager", introduced McCullough.
"It's important that you like who you are and where you are," McCullough said as she began her remarks. "I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be than here at Catawba College today. Today is the best day of my life."
McCullough explained that after her father died, her mother raised her and her multiple siblings on welfare in rural Georgia. For years after she was grown, she was too embarrassed, she said, to share that fact with anyone. However, eventually she realized that "it doesn't matter where you start, but where you finish," and acknowledged her very humble beginnings and even found humor in them.
"I've paid taxes for 59 years," she joked, "so I think I've paid them [the government] back for my mama raising us on welfare.
"Today, if people as if I'm rich, I say, 'Yes,' because I have window screens and window panes and paint on my house in Dallas, Texas," she quipped, recalling her childhood and her family's paintless home which was without window screens, window panes, and running water.
"You can be anything you want to be," she continued, noting, "you don't need to know how to do anything but how to start."
McCullough shared the story of her college career that was almost over before it started. "I told my momma I was going to college," she said. "I had heard that Howard Payne [University] was a Baptist school and that if you worked you could go. I didn't know that you majored. I didn't know that you minored, and I didn't know that you paid."
With only $25 to her name and a sack of her few belongings, McCullough traveled by bus to Howard Payne in Brownwood, Texas to enroll. She recalled the exact date that her life was changed – September 13, 1959. She called that a time that God winked at her.
"I was already there [at Howard Payne] and they asked me how I was going to pay. I had no idea. I met with the president of the college, President [Guy] Newman. He believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. He talked to his wife and told her, 'We've got to help this young woman.' "
The president worked out the necessary financial arrangements for the young, unsophisticated McCullough and actually allowed her to live at his home during the four year that she attended college.
Since that time, she has given back to her alma mater and encouraged the Catawba graduates to do the same and "pass it on."
"My richest blessings are giving to my church, to people in need, and to my college," she said. Through that giving, McCullough realized, "You cannot out give God."
McCullough, the "I Can" lady, worked with Zig Ziglar for 10 years as a speaker and author before forming her company, Mamie McCullough and Associates of Dallas, Texas, in 1989. Her professional background is widely varied and peppered with personal triumphs. She has overcome poverty and other adversities, including cancer. She started her business career as a secretary and became vice president of 13 corporations by age 28. Later, she became a sales director for a direct sales organization and during one year was among the top 10 in recruiting. She has also worked as an educator, teaching every level from eighth grade through college, and has served as a principal of a large Georgia high school.