A Life: David “Herc” McCullough, 1941-2017; ‘He Was Just Always for the Underdog’

  • David "Herc" McCullough, of Royalton, Vt., is photographed with his daughters and some of his grandchildren in 2010. Clockwise from lower left are Danielle Blodgett, Tracey Stratton, Sierra Hein, Kim Bahr and Nicole Manning. (Family photograph)

  • David "Herc" McCullough, of Royalton, Vt., prepares to hitch his horse for a wedding in August 2014. (Family photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Monday, November 06, 2017

Royalton — Call him the Mayor of North Road.

For decades, David McCullough beckoned passersby to the porch of his Royalton farmhouse, offering coffee and conversation.

Often he’d have a Johnny Cash record playing.

“He was part of the scenery here on the hill,” his daughter Tracey Stratton recalled. “He kind of was the hill.”

Save for a brief stint living in East Hartford, Conn., where he worked for engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, McCullough spent his whole life in Vermont.

“There was too much traffic down there, and it was a total different life,” his widow, Judith, said. “And so we came back, and we both were happy here.”

Upon returning to Vermont, McCullough, who was born in Randolph, took up dairy farming before later transitioning into trucking and excavating.

He got so buff tending to his Holsteins and his equipment that friends took to calling him “Herc,” short for Hercules. The nickname stuck.

While leasing McCullough’s farm, Wayne Townsend learned the extent of his strength the hard way. Townsend had spent hours toiling in the barn one day, tossing and stacking hay bales; when he emerged, McCullough, sipping a drink in the shade of a tree, called over, “Oh wow, look at the farmer!”

That set Townsend off. “I’ll throw you right in that pond,” he remembers replying.

“So I came over and I went to grab on to him, and that’s when I realized I’d made a mistake, because he was a pretty good-sized man and I couldn’t get my arms around him. And he came over on top of me, and I was the one that went in the pond,” Townsend said.

All the same, Townsend remembers his friend as personable and compassionate, and especially eager to aid other working-class people.

“He’d help out somebody like me way before he would somebody with all kinds of money,” Townsend said. “He was just always for the underdog.”

After a hard day’s work, McCullough would often turn his attention to his lawn.

“He was obsessed with his lawn looking perfect,” Stratton said. “He just loved to get on his lawnmower and take his beer and ride around and kind of forget stuff.”

The lawnmowing habit offered some respite for McCullough, whose busy schedule did not allow time for many trips or hobbies.

“I’ll tell you what,” said longtime friend Ed Billings, of Chelsea, “once in a while you could get him out with his horses, but Dave was an awful worker. It’s very rare you got him out.”

After giving up farming, McCullough built ponds and installed septic tanks; hauled bulldozers and other heavy equipment; and delivered sand and gravel from a pit behind the family-owned McCullough’s Quik Stop on Route 107 near the Bethel town line.

He contributed to state recovery efforts after Tropical Storm Irene. And he continued haying the fields on his farm.

His family occasionally encouraged him to slow down, to no avail.

“We had tried to tell him for years: Why don’t you just retire?” Stratton said. “You know, sell some stuff, retire, go do stuff, enjoy stuff? But it wasn’t him.”

When he died, on a hot day in June, the 75-year-old McCullough was still working.

“Basically it was a heart attack caused by heat exhaustion,” Stratton said. “He was down there fighting with the baler and kept getting on and off the tractor trying to pull hay out.”

When he heard the news, Townsend headed straight for the farm where he and McCullough had shared so many chats.

“I said, ‘I’ll be right there,’ so I went and helped put in the rest of the hay he was baling when he passed,” he said.

McCullough’s death came as a jolt. “It was just hard to believe, and it was just devastating,” Townsend said. “He was one of a kind.”

The man widely known as “Herc” is survived by wife Judith and daughter Tracey, as well as by his daughter Kim Bahr and son-in-law Greg Bahr; son Kris McCullough and daughter-in-law Kim; son-in-law Paul Stratton; brothers Mike Haikara and Frank and Willo McCullough; sisters Judy Sanders, Sophia Taylor, and Mary Vance; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Judith, who grew up in the Bethel area, met her future husband while they were in high school, and was smitten.

“He made people laugh, he had a lot of friends, he was handsome, and he was really nice,” she said. “I guess it was love at first sight.”

One of his habits she misses most is the bear hugs in which he would envelop her.

Even if not related by blood or marriage, McCullough had a tendency to make those close to him feel like family. Billings, who lived at McCullough’s house for a few years as a teen, described him as “more like a brother to me than a friend.”

Over four decades, they worked together, joked together, ate and drank together.

“We did have a lot of good years,” he said, drawing out the “lot.”

After McCullough died, his daughter Tracey received a note that captured some of what made him special.

“It was very raw and heartfelt and it kind of totally explained the type of person he was,” she said.

It came from a neighbor, Terri Farnham, on whom her dad had made a lasting impression.

In it, Farnham detailed how McCullough had appeared at her home, atop a big paint horse, to welcome her family to the area.

“I was in awe of why he would even care about us, why he would take the time to stop by, bring his beautiful wife back to meet me, and why he would welcome us to use his family’s land,” she wrote. “Never before had I had anyone do this.”

Farnham’s condolence note closed with a wish: “May you cling to the beautiful memories and know that so many of us are shouldering a part of your pain so that you needn’t feel it all on your own.”

Gabe Brison-Trezise can be reached at g.brisontrezise@gmail.com.