With help, once-homeless family has a Harvard student

This was Bob Braun’s column in today’s Star-Ledger.

A startling success story

Thursday, June 14, 2007
Nick Culbertson was homeless five years ago. Now he’s going to Harvard.

Standing in his blue graduation gown after The Pingry School’s commencement the other day, clutching congratulatory balloons, Nick uses the word “surreal” to describe his life. Sure, it’s a word overused by teenagers, but in this case it fits.

“It’s all so difficult to believe,” says Nick. “I’m still not sure I do believe it.”

In 2002, Nick and his older sister Ashley were homeless, living in a South Plainfield motel. Abandoned by their mother, their father in jail for murder. Cooking meals on an illegal hot plate, unsure whether they would have a school to go to because they didn’t live in any district.

A story about them in this space generated a lot of help.

Nick has graduated near the top of his class at Pingry in Martinsville, one of the state’s toughest and most prestigious independent schools. He’s a member of the Cum Laude Society, independent schools’ version of the National Honor Society.

Preparing to enter Harvard in the fall, where he’ll study Asian languages. After a two-month study tour of China.

“Can you believe that?” asks his grandmother, Lillian Culbertson. “Can you believe where he’s going to college?”

She, too, has trouble believing it, although she doesn’t use the word “surreal.” Lillian is a high school dropout. A woman who struggled to raise Nick and Ashley on the money she earned waitressing part time in a deli and cleaning other people’s homes.

Lillian, gruff and irreverent, profane and often indifferent to decorum, called out, “Yeah, Nicky!” when his name was called to receive his diploma. She had done the same thing a few nights earlier at an awards assembly, when he received recognition for both his academic achievement and his persistence despite serious obstacles.

“I know, I’m probably not supposed to do that sort of thing,” says Lillian. At The Pingry School, where annual tuition is close to $25,000 (Nick received financial aid, as he will at Harvard), parents are usually more restrained.

“But I’m just so proud of him. I can’t help myself.”

Schools like Pingry and Harvard are far from her experience as a child, a parent, and an adult. All three of her daughters dropped out of school and lived tough lives.

“Nick and Ashley gave me a second chance,” says Lillian. “A chance to get it right this one time. I wasn’t going to blow it.”

Ashley was graduated from Dunellen High School last year — also near the top of her class — and just finished her first year at Davidson College in North Carolina. She couldn’t attend Nick’s graduation because she had left the day before for two months of service and learning in South Africa.

Nick, who had been at the top of his class at Dunellen, transferred to Pingry two years ago.

“It was rough,” he admits. Both academically and socially. He didn’t make valedictorian, but his blue graduation cap bore a gold tassel, a mark of one of the top graduating seniors.

“He was up every night studying,” says Lillian. “Nick really worked so hard to get where he is.”

As, of course, did Lillian.

When their story was first reported here, many responded with gifts and donations, large and small. One reader found them an apartment, another paid the first six months’ rent. Someone else sent a check large enough to help Lillian afford to keep her car.

“It all came just at the right time,” she says. “We were in a lot trouble.”

One reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, became a mentor to Ashley and Nick, helped them prepare for, and apply to, college, provided a car and cell phones, paid for summer programs.

But Lillian still worked, paid for the rent and the food and the clothes. She cleans other people’s homes, even if her grandson is now a Harvard undergraduate.

“She’s always there for us,” says Nick. In a few days, he leaves for China for two months of language study; he spent last summer in Japan.

Recently, Lillian took in her mother, Ella, 76, and suffering from cancer.

“Now she needs help,” says Lillian, 52, who, just days before the Pingry commencement, was treated for pneumonia. “I have to be there for her, too.”

Nick didn’t want a party for his graduation. Lillian was a little disappointed — she likes to brag about him to her friends — but she understood.

She even may have been a little relieved. After all, she had to get up before dawn the next day to begin working.

“That’s my reality — and it doesn’t change,” says Lillian Culbertson.

Bob Braun may be reached at (973) 392-4281 or at rbraun@starledger.com.

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