San Jose Mercury News. December 23, 1988

Pathways to the Coveted Rhodes: Michael McCullough

The journey from outcast to achiever

Michael McCullough could barely speak until he reached his teens. Brain surgery helped him overcome that. He became a pilot at 16. He was elected class president and set his high school discus-throwing record 148 feet, and the record still stands. He went to Stanford, where he maintains a 3.85 grade point average. He teaches a section of neuroanatomy. He is a professional model, a stand-up comic, a community worker.

Now he's a Rhodes scholar.

He is sitting on the patio of the campus coffee shop, shivering in the cold, which exacerbates his stutter, the remnant of his childhood illness. To bypass the stutter, he slips into a fluent British accent. This is a coping mechanism that McCullough has developed over the years. He has a repertoire of about 20 accents that form the basis of the comedy routine that he has performed on campus.

In this routine, McCullough tells his audience that he is not only comfortable with his stutter, but is willing to tell them lots of funny stories about it, how his stutter drove his dog R-r-r-over crazy, how telephone operators, eager to get him off the line, retrieve information for him with unusual speed, how cops have pulled him over for speeding and, faced with his stutter, say, "Hey, big guy, slow down, all right?" and back right off.

Born two months premature, delivered with forceps, McCullough suffered from hydrocephalus, severe water on the brain, a condition that wasn't properly diagnosed for years.

"I had horrible headaches for nine years," he says matter-of-factly. "I couldn't talk at all until I was about 13 or 14, and not really even great then, and my twin brother translated for me. He could always understand everything that I said. And here's the contrast to it now I swung from being an outcast till I was about 13 to being the class president when I was a senior and then was appointed to the Oregon State Board of Education."

At first, McCullough didn't want his photograph taken for this story he didn't have time, and besides he had a terrific modeling glossy of himself. Then, after agreeing to be photographed, he arrived in a suit and said he wasn't going to be photographed in a suit, because "that's not me." Then he reconsidered and apologized for being "headstrong."

'Very religious person'

He didn't really even want to be interviewed: "I'm also a very religious person, and one of the things I told the supreme leader of the universe, or whatever, was that I wasn't going to seek too much publicity. And I take my oaths seriously. Because there are two sides to this Oxford thing. One part is very real it's the education and the experience. But there's also the side that's the flattery and prestige. It's sort of like candy. If you eat too much of it, you throw up."

McCullough was raised in the country outside the town of Hillsboro, Ore. The family's closest neighbor lived more than a mile away.

"I spent most of my time thinking or trying to improve or going off into the forest near my home to play. And I used to read encyclopedias all the time."

In addition to suffering from a severe speech impediment, McCullough had trouble controlling muscle movements on his right side: His fist would ball up and "I would have to think it open." At the age of 10, after his problems were diagnosed, he underwent surgery and his condition began to improve. By the time he was about 13, he discovered that he could speak fluently in accents.

Learned to be a pilot

Then, when he was 16, his grandfather, Swede Ralston, taught him to fly a plane. "Let's head out to the Flying M Ranch," Ralston would say. They would hop into Ralston's single-engine plane and fly about 30 miles to the ranch, which is on the floor of a deep three-sided canyon. There's only one way in and one way out. Were they to overshoot the landing, they would be dead.

This never became a problem for McCullough, although, he jokes, "I've had trouble talking to control towers."

Ralston became a role model for McCullough along with Mahatma Gandhi. McCullough describes his grandfather like this: "He's real honest and he's real up-front and he's real passionate about the things he does. He's kind of like in that he just keeps on trying stuff and everything turns out OK.

As a means of overcoming his handicap, McCullough had developed his powers of concentration to an unusual degree, and he turned this to his advantage. At age 17, he says, he experienced an "explosion" of activity. He became a non-voting member of the state board of education and traveled around the state speaking at public hearings on education, addressing student assemblies.

At Stanford, McCullough took a job building a computer database on the employment and racial politics of U.S. companies in South Africa, used by university trustees in developing investment policies. McCullough became a pre-med student, majoring in human biology and political science, and he was broke. So he started modeling. He says he has agents in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and London. Then he cut that back and began working on campus as a teaching assistant because teaching is "more fun."

McCullough co-founded the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, which after two years has become his baby. This is a five-week summer residence program for underprivileged high school students, mostly from the Bay Area. The students work with cadavers at Stanford University Hospital and hold human hearts in their hands. This year, McCullough raised $32,000 for the program from the likes of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and the Packard Foundation. He interviewed each of 110 applicants last spring, before 19 were accepted. Now he is looking for a successor: "He's trying to institutionalize the program since next year there will be no Michael McCullough to run it," laments Marilyn Winkleby, the project's academic adviser.

Next year McCullough will be off to Oxford. Before he arrives, he says, he will have eliminated his stutter. After two or three years in England, he plans to return to the United States to attend medical school. He thinks he will be an emergency-room doctor, which is "real close to being a true physician" anything can be thrown at any time. Emergency-room doctors don't have regular patients, so their schedules are flexible. McCullough has it mapped out, how he will take a year off here and there to pursue other passions: "teaching, or health policy or becoming senator or something, and then completing it, and pulling back to medicine."

"I'm almost always in the same frame of mind," McCullough says. "I'm hardly ever upset. I'm hardly ever angry. I don't worry that much, and because of that I have a lot of creative time to work toward the solution of a problem, rather than worrying about a problem. I don't sit around and say, 'Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.'

"I figure," Michael McCullough computes, "I have 50 to 65 years still left."