By Piper Fialkoff
Con Fullam grew up in Sydney, Maine, a small town where there were more cows than people. He was first inspired by music after his father passed away, leaving him a ukulele. Teaching himself to play the instrument, and subsequently the guitar, became Con’s salvation. Soon he was on a path to create more music, music that in turn could be used to spread a broader message—a message of peace. For twenty years, Con traveled the road from New York to Nashville, performing and writing with his folk band. After he adopted his children, he decided the road wasn’t going to be as friendly, so he moved back to Maine to produce music.
But how did a folk singer turn into a children’s book author? Where did the idea for the Wompkees first blossom? It was one in the morning when Con and his wife were struggling through a song, waiting for inspiration to strike.
“For some reason there was a rhyme issue and I came up with Wompkee. I have no idea why. Then we thought about it for a while; maybe it sounded like a sort of creature. Then we started thinking about what that creature would look like, what it would sound like, and why it would be.”
The song ended up going nowhere, but Con was set; the Wompkees were born. After the idea was fleshed out Con called Mary Meyer, a toy company in Maine. The owner answered the call and, intrigued by the idea, agreed to create a plush toy. At the time Con worked in television, and in 1994, he and partner Maura Clarke premiered the Wompkees as a puppet show on local television. A licensing agreement that included plush toys, books, audiotapes and an annual appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Twig (the littlest Wompkee and Con’s favorite) has appeared in the parade for the past 23 years. To date, the Wompkees have starred in two full-length movies, A Very Wompkee Christmas and Hidden Treasure of Wompkee Wood.
The Wompkees are very special creatures, capable of communicating with all the different creatures in Wompkee Wood. Their fun-loving nature and insatiable curiosity are reminiscent of the children they hope to inspire.
“In some respect,” Con says, “if you put all the Wompkees together you get a kid.”
Con once mentioned that he attended a “school full of underachievers,” himself included, a designation hard to believe considering all his successes. Not only was he a writer for MCA, RCA, Warner Bros, and Chapel, he has also been nominated for four Emmys. If someone had told an eighteen-year-old Con this was his destiny, he “would have laughed it off.”
“I’ve been very fortunate and I am very grateful for that,” he says. “Over time, successes come from not allowing others to direct you. If you wait for someone else’s permission to get something done, you’ll wait a really long time. It’s really creating a lot of luck, as well as having a lot of luck.”
With all the luck Con has had, I wondered what he would say to people trying to create a little luck for themselves. What would he say if he had the ear of the world for just a moment?
“In this time, and day we live in, we really need to find a way to appreciate each other and to appreciate our differences and to understand them. We need to become bigger people who are able to deal with and accept our differences.”
As the conductor of the Pihcinto Girl’s Chorus, Con is doing just that.
“Fourteen years ago, a friend of mine was the executive director of Kathy Charities in Maine, a huge player in welcoming refugees and immigrants into this country. I didn’t realize the scope or sheer number of different nationalities that were being represented in Portland, Maine, before I spoke to her. I realized that basically when you come to a new country, the first thing you lose is your voice. So I formed a chorus with the idea of giving girls their voices back. Pihcintu Girl’s Chorus got its name from the Passamaquoddy word meaning, When she sings, her voice carries far.”
The chorus, made up of 32 girls from 19 different countries, sings songs of peace and unity, songs many of them learn phonetically as they learn English for the first time. They have performed on the Today Show and Voice of America, on the NPR and Al Jazeera networks, and at the White House, the United Nations, and the Kennedy Center.
Truly, Con Fullom is an inspiring individual whose work reaches the hearts and minds of both young and old. Children’s books can often be overlooked as great works of literature, for their simplicity is meant to reach still developing minds. But the stories our children read are often filled with wondrous messages, messages of peace and empowerment. The Wompkees, fantastical creatures who have the power to communicate with all manner of creatures, are a delightful reflection of the goals of the man who created them.