Robert Fulghum Proves the Rules of Kindergarten, Even for Grown-Ups, Aren't Just Kid Stuff

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Robert Fulghum's Seattle studio fairly bursts with his toys. His gorilla suit hangs on the door, a cuckoo clock ticks down to its hourly delirium, a set of paints waits on a table. When Fulghum has a mind to, he perches on his hand-tooled saddle or grabs his rope swing to describe a lazy arc around the premises. Weathered horse and cow bones, found on hikes, fill a large case. Over his desk is a giant poster of himself as a baby, and a yellowed model of a human skull sits on a nearby shelf. "This," says Fulghum, pointing to the poster, "is to remind me of where I came from. And that is to remind me of where I'm going."

Fulghum, 52, a semiretired Unitarian minister and art teacher, has always believed that small things can teach large lessons. Until recently, though, he didn't realize they could bring fame and fortune as well. In October he published his first book, a slim volume of homespun wisdom entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book has sold more than half a million copies. For the last 15 weeks it has held near the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and the paperback rights recently sold for $2.1 million. Fulghum, an unpretentious sort who is most comfortable in overalls and running shoes, can't quite believe it all. Says he: "I'm flabbergasted every time my agent calls."

Kindergarten got its start years ago, when Fulghum was writing essays for the newsletter of the Edmonds Unitarian Church, his suburban parish north of Seattle. One of his favorite pieces was about the enduring value of the rules we learn in childhood (see box). "Children are sent to school to be civilized, to learn to be part of the social enterprise," Fulghum says. "What they are taught may sound light and fluffy, but if you think about it, it makes sense."

One night in 1986, Fulghum happened to read his kindergarten credo at a gathering attended by former Sen. Dan Evans of Washington. Evans liked what he heard and gave a copy to then Majority Leader Jim Wright, who read it into the Congressional Record. From there, Fulghum's philosophy found its way into Dear Abby and Reader's Digest. Then, in 1987, a Connecticut literary agent came across a copy tucked into her toddler's school knapsack. She telephoned Fulghum and suggested that he turn it into the central essay of a book. Delighted, Fulghum combed his files for other essays to include. The finished product was snapped up by Villard Books.

"I believe people like the book because it talks about really serious subjects, death and love for instance, with a light heart," says Fulghum. It also offers whimsical observations on everything from raccoon mating habits to the pleasures of doing laundry and reveals the author himself to be an eccentric character who once taped the sound of snow falling, then used the tape to adorn his Christmas presents. "So much of our existence is sorrow," Fulghum explains, "which is why I go about my business looking for humor and mischief."

He hasn't always. Fulghum's first job after graduating from Baylor University, in his hometown of Waco, Texas, was about as straight as they come: On the recommendation of his father, a Sears, Roebuck executive, he signed up as an IBM sales trainee. Corporate life did not suit him. In 1958, after marrying his college sweetheart, he enrolled in the Starr King Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., mostly, he says, because "it sounded like a place where you could really think." He paid the bills by working as a bartender, an artist (churning out street scenes for a motel chain) and, during the summers, as a singing cowboy in Montana. "You know, where you take the dudes on rides and lead them in song," he says. "It was fun, and good practice for being a minister."

Ordained in 1961, Fulghum had preached in two congregations and settled down in Edmonds parish by 1966. In his spare time he continued to seek adventure, both physical and spiritual. He traveled to Birmingham, Ala., for a civil rights march, taught art to teenagers and founded a wilderness camp in Canada. In 1972, as his marriage was crumbling, he toyed with the idea of becoming a monk, and even spent time at a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto. "I shaved my head and beard," he says, "and became quite saintly—for about three days."

That trip to Japan did yield one thing of permanence, however. Fulghum met Lynn Edwards, a Japanese-American woman whom he married three years later. Between Lynn's semesters as a medical student at the University of Washington, they borrowed money to travel around the world twice. (Fulghum says his second book, due this fall, focuses heavily on his travels.)

Two years ago Fulghum took a leave of absence from the ministry with every intention of pursuing his lifelong love of painting. The publication of Kindergarten plunged him into a whirl of publicity instead, but he and Lynn, now a doctor practicing family medicine, are trying not to let success change their ways too much. They live on a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle. Fulghum pedals his bicycle to his studio and prefers not to ride in limos when on promotion tours. He has put a third of his publishing earnings into trusts for his children—Christian, 29, a businessman; Hunter, 27, an engineer; and Molly, 22, a homemaker—and he hopes they will donate some to charity. "My secret agenda is to convey my values to my kids," he explains. "One of those values is to give back to the pot."

Also on Fulghum's secret agenda is a long-held dream to hire an orchestra, fill a hall with friends and conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He will probably do that now—and plenty more besides. "I've always made a clear distinction between making a life and making a living," he says. "Any fool can make enough money to survive. It's another thing to keep yourself consistently entertained. It's a lot of work, and a lot of fun, to make a life."

—Andrea Chambers, and Priscilla Turner in Seattle

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