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story.lead_photo.caption Linda Sullins taught drama and other related subjects at Clinton High School for almost nine years. She is now the Mutt-i-grees curriculum facilitator at the local high school and is active in a jail ministry with her husband, Burl. - Photo by Gareth Patterson

Operas, musicals, students, mutts — Linda Sullins loves them all.

“I’ve had a really fun life,” said Sullins, 63, who retired two years ago as the drama teacher at Clinton High School but came out of retirement to teach the Mutt-i-grees curriculum to area students. “I’m such a people person.

“I’ve been so blessed with good, loyal friends that have become my ‘drama’ family. We’ve watched the kids grow up [onstage].

“I’m very blessed with a good marriage and happy, healthy kids. That’s everything. Good friends, family, coffee and chocolate — I’m set.”

Sullins spent 22 years in education — 15 years in Van Buren County and seven in Memphis — before retiring in June 2013. She has spent the past two years teaching the Mutt-i-grees curriculum, which is taught in at least 40 states and more than 1,300 schools. She was named the 2013 Mutt-i-grees Teacher of the Year at Clinton High School.

Sullins is also involved in a jail ministry at the Van Buren County Detention Center, where her husband is the chaplain.

“I do a weekly Bible study at the jail,” she said. “I try to help them when they get out. I try to make sure they see their probation officer. I take them to court, wherever they need to go.

“We’re working hard to get a women’s shelter set up here. Many of them have no place to go when they get out of jail. We’re working hard for a halfway house for women.”

Sullins said her passion for the jail ministry led to her latest passion, the Mutt-i-grees program, which focuses on social and emotional well-being and works to instill in students respect for themselves, for others, for animals and the environment.

“I keep seeing my students end up here in jail,” she said, noting that she has seen students from all three Van Buren County schools in the local jail. “That’s one reason I became involved in the Mutt-i-grees program. If we can reach these students at a young age and try to get them to realize their worth, they have a better chance at having a quality life.”

Sullins and her husband, Burl, have been married for 38 years. He had two children when the couple married, and they have one together.

Their son, Chris Sullins, 49, is a sales manager for a hydraulics company in Houma, Louisiana.

Their daughter Denise Sullins Strawn, 46, lives in Clinton and teaches sixth grade in the Clinton School District. She has two children, Anna, 16, and Joseph, 12.

The Sullinses’ daughter Amanda Sullins Cook, 35, lives in Clinton with her husband, David. She works in the Van Buren County Assessor’s Office. Together they have four children — Tatum Cook, 13, Eden Cook, 11, and 10-year-old twins, Dane and Keegan Campbell.

Linda Sullins lived in Memphis when she met her husband. They were married in 1978.

“We dated for three months and got married,” she said with a laugh. “Everything looked up from there. He has always been my rock.

“We have lived here 20 years. We came to Fairfield Bay on a time-share visit. We said we were ‘definitely not going to buy.’

“But we ended up buying into the time-share, … and we bought a condo there as well. We realized we loved the area and missed it when we would have to go back to Memphis.”

At that time, Sullins taught kindergarten at Harding Academy in Memphis, and her husband was with the Memphis Fire Department.

“Amanda decided she wanted to move here,” Linda Sullins said. “It was a God thing. Burl took an early retirement from the Fire Department (after 30 years), and I gave notice. We moved here, and within a month, we both had jobs.

“My principal at Harding had a sister who was a principal at Shirley. She gave me a job. I was a librarian at Shirley Elementary School for a year.”

Sullins taught English and AP English at South Side Bee Branch High School for almost three years before returning to the Shirley School District, where she taught English, speech and drama for almost two years. It was there that she co-wrote and directed Bridge That Leads to Shirley, a play about the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad bridge that brought the railroad through the area.

She began her career with the Clinton School District in August 2004. During her almost nine years in Clinton, she taught AP English, speech, journalism and drama. She directed many performances in the Clinton High School Auditorium.

“When I first came to Clinton, the people were so friendly and welcoming,” she said. “I have made lifelong friends. I jelled with three women especially — Carol Gray Hutto, Sallie Parish and Lorna Nulph. They are all talented in their own way.”

She performed in the first musical in the newly built auditorium, appearing as Maria in The Sound of Music in 2006. From 2007 to 2013, she directed The Wizard of Oz; Arsenic and Old Lace; Movies, Music and Magic; Clinton’s Got Talent; Fiddler on the Roof; Oklahoma! and The Music Man.

She retired from teaching in June 2013 only to find herself back in the classroom setting in July 2014, when she became the facilitator of the Mutt-i-grees program for Van Buren County schools, which includes Clinton, Shirley and South Side Bee Branch. She is working solely for the Clinton School District this year as the Mutt-i-grees facilitator.

Sullins most recently produced a musical based on the Mutt-i-grees curriculum. She directed a cast of more than 50 students and adults July 20 and 21 in Mutt-i-grees Musical Extravaganza: The Dog Days of Summer 2015 at the Clinton High School Auditorium.

Sullins graduated in 1969 from North High School in Evansville, Indiana, where she was in the concert choir.

“My high school choir director, Jerry Hoover, is still thriving,” she said. “I became Facebook friends with him. I learned so much from him. He was strict — if you missed, you were out of the show, so that was ingrained in me.

“I was a varsity singer. I took dance [lessons] when I was 7. I studied voice.

“I was also a cheerleader,” she said. “But my choir director told me I had to make a choice. Did I want to be able to cheer or sing longer? I gave up being a cheerleader.”

Sullins, the daughter of the late David and Anna Woodruff, came from a musical family.

“My mother was very musical,” Sullins said. “She went around the house singing … Patti Page, the McGuire sisters, Rosemary Clooney. She kept up with them all. She played the old vinyl, the old 78s, and listened to them all.

“I thought everybody’s mother sang,” Sullins said.

“My dad played the tuba, although he was only 5 feet 6,” she said. “One of my grandfathers, Gramps, used to be a singer, and the other one, Pop, had a dance band.”

Sullins has one sister, Diane Smith of Owensboro, Kentucky. Sullins’ brother, Jim Woodruff, is deceased.

Sullins attended Indiana University Bloomington, where she studied music performance and radio and television broadcasting. While there, she toured with the Singing Hoosiers and the Children’s Theatre.

“Mr. Hoover set up an audition for me with the director, Robert Stoll, of the Singing Hoosiers,” Sullins said, adding that Stoll is also still alive. “The Singing Hoosiers is still going strong. They just had their 65th anniversary. It’s always been a big group.”

The Singing Hoosiers frequently traveled across the country. Members of the show choir often did USO tours as well.

“We performed at the Little 500 Variety Show, which was held in conjunction with the Little 500 bicycle race on campus,” she said. “We opened for a lot of big names, including Bob Hope.”

Sullins said she sang with the show choir for three years. She sings soprano.

Sullins left Indiana and moved to Memphis. She changed her college major from music to journalism and enrolled at Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis.

She graduated from Memphis State in 1973 with a degree in journalism.

“My mother used to worry that I would never graduate,” she said with a laugh. “I started out studying music education and worked on a performance degree. Then I switched to radio and TV, then journalism and ended up in education.”

She was active in the Memphis Opera Theatre and the Lyric Theatre. She also sang in the Hosanna Quartet, a gospel group.

“We sang for food,” she said with a laugh. “It was all a cappella.”

Sullins taught at Harding Academy in Memphis for seven years.

“I taught kindergarten and loved it,” she said.

Sullins returned to college in 1996, earning a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 1999; with this degree, she was qualified to teach language arts, journalism, speech, drama and social studies in fifth through 12th grades. While at UCA, she was a member of the UCA Summer Writing Project and a member of Alpha Phi Omega.

She served as a Pathwise mentor for first-time teachers from 2002-2013; an AP English literature consultant for the AAIMS program from 2012-13; a Mutt-i-grees curriculum consultant from 2012-13; and an ACT prep instructor for four years.

Sullins has relied on her family, friends and faith throughout her life. She sites two of her favorite biblical passages that have helped her: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Philippians 4:13; and “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope,” Jeremiah 29:11.

“The Lord has a plan and a purpose for all of us,” Sullins said. “He’ll just wait for us to find what it is.”

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