After 41 years,  Ed Cullen retiring

Advocate file photo -- Ed Cullen on an interview in 1977.
Advocate file photo -- Ed Cullen on an interview in 1977.

Ed Cullen, whose 41-year career at The Baton Rouge Advocate endeared him to thousands of readers and included a body of work that eventually secured him a national audience of radio listeners and a critically acclaimed book, is retiring from The Advocate on Friday.

Cullen, 66, is perhaps best known for his award-winning personal column, “Attic Salt,” which appears for the last time in today’s edition, concluding a publication run that began in 1974.

Cullen, whose column has been one of the most recognizable fixtures in The Advocate for decades, announced his retirement a few weeks ago.

Cullen said he will continue to write but away from the pressures of daily journalism.

“While I consider myself a newspaper writer first, I’m ready to do something new,” he said. “Deadlines are such a part of your life that you meet them, but you don’t realize what stress they are on you until you don’t have them anymore.”

A native of Alexandria, a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of LSU’s journalism program, Cullen started working at The Advocate as an obituary writer in 1972. Baton Rouge was then a two-newspaper town, including the Morning Advocate and the evening State-Times which closed Oct. 2, 1991.

Cullen became a general assignment reporter for The Advocate’s city desk, covering everything from crime to courts to school board meetings. Along the way, he noticed local happenings and characters that begged to be written about, although they defied easy category.

“I loved doing slice of life stories,” Cullen recalled of his early career. “I liked characters. Writing news, I’d see things that I couldn’t put into a news story. I decided I wanted to write a column. There had never been a personal essay column in either The Advocate or The State-Times.

“When I approached the city desk about writing a personal column, they said no, so I approached Charles Lindsay, who was then editor of The Advocate Sunday Magazine, and he said yes.”

“Attic Salt” debuted in March 1974. The term refers to something humorous or poignant.

The weekly column became a reader favorite and has earned numerous awards.

Along with the column, Cullen continued writing news stories and features for The Advocate, his stories distinguished by their elegance of expression and often wry sensibility.

His byline became a staple of the People section, where he moved early in his career, serving for a time as the section’s assistant editor before returning to full-time writing.

Cullen’s talent attracted the attention of the late Doug Manship Sr., publisher of The Advocate and State-Times during the initial years of Cullen’s career. After Manship suggested that Cullen write features from the road, Cullen began collecting material from points far beyond Baton Rouge in feature stories called “Sketches.”

“I would take off in the mornings and go where I wanted,” Cullen said. “I was sometimes so far outside our circulation area that people hadn’t heard of The Advocate. I was always well received by people in pool halls, diners and auto garages.”

Eventually, Cullen’s reporting became more focused on south Louisiana, although he occasionally filed stories from elsewhere. His coverage of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 yielded a reporting award from The Associated Press, one of many writing honors that Cullen has received over the years.

In 2001, Cullen’s columns came to the attention of National Public Radio, which hired him to contribute radio commentaries to the network.

“At first, it didn’t register with me that I was reaching that many people,” said Cullen, whose radio essays were heard by millions of listeners. “It was fun interpreting Louisiana for the rest of the country. The reaction was wonderful. It was all I could have expected.”

Among the listeners was a book publicist who asked Cullen if he’d like to collect some of his essays in book form. “Letter in a Woodpile,” an assortment of Cullen’s radio and newspaper essays, appeared in 2006, gaining a warm reception from readers and critics alike.

The essays in the book chronicle Cullen’s life as a father, grandfather, gardener, husband and citizen of the world, showcasing the mature style of an essayist whose approach had evolved from its 1970s origins.

Cullen’s early columns tended toward thumbnail sketches of characters he’d meet on his reporter’s beat. Over time, “Attic Salt” gravitated toward musings on Cullen’s domestic life.

When he started “Attic Salt” in 1974, Cullen had been married a mere five years to his wife, Martha Lynn, with whom he had two children: Emily, then 3, and Michael Edward, who was a 1-year-old.

The Cullens have three grandchildren.

Through Cullen’s columns, thousands of readers have watched his household grow.

That family, said Cullen, is his biggest accomplishment.

“I think what I’m most proud of is providing a stable childhood for my children, letting them grow up in the same house in the same neighborhood,” said Cullen, a longtime resident of University Hills. “Providing for my family is what I’m most proud of.”