Look Back and Pay it Forward

By Marnie Piehl
ScreenShot20180709at3.56.23PM.pngBSC Alumnus of the Year Mike Bullinger (’70) wasn’t much of a student. His dad had only an 8th grade education, and kept the family afloat delivering Mobil Oil products. His mother died when he was 14 years old and his older sister was 17. The family didn’t have a lot of money.

Mike had his first job in grade school, selling Grit newspapers to bar patrons in downtown Mandan. The newspaper cost a quarter, and often, he’d also make a quarter tip.

In high school he worked several jobs, but didn’t have a lot of direction academically. Then, during his senior year, Mike’s life took a significant turn. He took a bookkeeping class, and, three weeks before graduation, he met his future wife, Peggy. He fell in love with both.

“I hung around with Peggy, and she was a good student. I decided I needed to start studying.”

The bookkeeping class was the first time school had come easy for him. “I never knew anything about accounting before I took that class, and then I not only liked it, I excelled at it.”

With Peggy as an influence and accounting as a goal, Mike applied to Bismarck Junior College in 1969.

“My grades were such that I wondered if I would get in. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. When I got the letter saying I was accepted at BJC – it was the equivalent of a star student
getting accepted to Harvard!”

In order to take accounting classes, Mike first had to take remedial classes in English and math.
Those classes showed him that he wasn’t a bad student, he just had never learned how to study.

New study habits, and the influence of professors like Art Davis along with his considerable work ethic soon brought his grades up enough to earn a $200 scholarship. While his dad paid for his books and an occasional tank of gas, Mike paid out of pocket for all his other expenses, so the scholarship was a lifeline.

“That $200 meant a lot to me. I’ll never forget it,” he says.

After two years, Peggy graduated from Mandan High School, the couple married and settled in Grand Forks while Mike attended the University of North Dakota. Money was so tight that one night the only food in the house was a can of beans and a can of corn. That’s what they ate for dinner.

Mike earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting from UND, and went on to become a CPA. After working in a regional accounting firm, Mike opened his own public accounting practice. After several years he went on to start up or purchase a wide range of companies in manufacturing, home improvement, agricultural equipment, building tools and casual furniture. Today, he owns Western Products and is actively involved in franchising as well as commercial and residential real estate and development.

More than the success they’ve seen, it’s the couple’s humble beginnings that are at the heart of their exceptionally generous legacy. To this day, whenever the Bullingers move into a new home, the first meal they eat is a simple one of beans and corn to remind them of their roots. And they never hesitate to give back to the organizations that have impacted them. In addition to the scholarship they endowed through the BSC Foundation, the Bullingers have established endowments at UND, the FM Area Foundation and Dakota Medical Foundation. They were named Philanthropists of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2016.

The couple consults with their three grown daughters to determine how to direct much of their giving – a family tradition that has become as important as their corn and bean meals.

While the family has long lived in Fargo, they are western North Dakota ambassadors as well. Mike says they are “constantly hauling people from Fargo” to their beloved Medora – a place
Mike remembered visiting as a child. The family reconnected to the historic western town after getting involved in “Wooly Boys” a movie filmed in Medora in the late 1990s. Peggy became a
board member for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, and the family has refurbished a 100-year old home in Medora, built a private old-time saloon and contributed significantly to
the restoration of a number of other historic buildings there.

When determining how and where to give, the Bullingers’ philosophy is to look back. “What helped you in life? Look back and help others that way,” Mike says.

At UND, the Bullingers’ endowment pays the CPA exam fees for business and accounting students – a fee that was a hardship for Mike. At BSC the family provides two $1,250 scholarships each year to business and accounting students who need a hand.

“Those two years [at BSC] gave me my start. If I had gone to Grand Forks first I feel like I would have gotten lost, and I would not have gotten the chance to switch gears. When you’ve got
the wherewithal to give back, it’s fun. To choose a nonprofit, and write them a check feels really good.”