Harriet Fulbright discusses colorful life during Brown Bag

Harriet Fulbright, former executive director of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, spoke to dean of the School of Arts and Communication John Laughton and a small audience during Thursday’s Brown Bag series. (Photo courtesy of Janika Berridge)

Sitting in front of a wooden coffee table, John Laughton, dean of the School of Arts and Communications, was accompanied by Harriet Fulbright for the Brown Bag Series event on March 3, where they asked the crowd to “join the living room.”

The pair invited everyone closer, to “have a conversation,” creating an atmosphere in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall that was akin to sitting around and chatting comfortably in one’s own home.

Laughton directed the discussion as Fulbright, widow of United States Sen. J. William Fulbright, spoke of her late husband’s Fulbright Scholarship Program and the J. William and Harriet Fulbright Center, that, as its name suggests, the two created together.

Fulbright, who described herself as someone who always “loved art,” served as the executive director of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, where she spent time working with the White House’s executive branch, with Hillary Clinton as her honorary chair, she said.

Her job was to “tell the country how important the arts are, not only in the field of education, but (in) life and living.”

She first met the senator when the pair had lunch together after she was asked to run the Fulbright Association, she recounted.

She said she always rode her bicycle all over Washington until one day she was waiting at a red light and was hit by a truck.

The accident split her femur in three parts, but while she was in the hospital, she received a call from Fulbright saying she would have supper at his house from then on.

The two became best friends, and he asked her to marry him. She described their companionship as a “truly wonderful relationship, (that was) extraordinary for both of us.”

The pair traveled frequently, to England and back and forth to Arkansas, she said.

J. William Fulbright, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1942, attended the University of Arkansas and eventually became the university’s president — until Fulbright was fired by the man who he later ran against to become senator.

Fulbright explained how the Fulbright Scholarship program, “comes from the life of Fulbright,” whose English teacher persuaded him to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship after graduating.

According to his wife, traveling to England challenged Fulbright to work harder than ever before.

He felt as though “more Americans needed that kind of experience,” and for this reason, he started the program, Harriet Fulbright said.

Taking place in 340 countries worldwide, the program allowed recent college graduates to gain international experience in whatever field they had studied — everything from “neuroscience to the arts,” she said.

After World War II, Japan and Germany were among countries that “appreciated the program” and the “opportunity to again become respected members of the global community,” when Fulbright Commissions were set up there.

“It meant everything, being able to regain respectability and good standing in the eyes (of other nations),” and it showed that they were “capable of peaceful exchange,” Harriet Fulbright said.

The commissions, of which there are 52, “paid more attention to needs of the specific country,” and were “designed in order to make the whole process of exchange more formal and flow more freely.”

During the event, Fulbright shared her own experiences traveling, including an anecdotal tale of teaching 20 teenagers in Cypress.

The group had students from the North and South, she said, but they all came together to learn about art.

She had sent disposable cameras and asked them to photograph their environments. Through photography, each shared his or her own story — whether it was pictures of their families and pets, which a majority were, but one young man brought in picturesque images of a mountain. Fondly recalling the experience, she said, “Those pictures were a real window into (the lives of) these people.”

Jamie Primeau can be reached at primeau2@tcnj.edu.