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The King of 'Kindergarten' : Call it common sense, but millions of Americans can't seem to get enough of what Robert Fulghum says we all learned as children.

November 26, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — He is a man who profoundly hates dogs. So much so that he brags he still loves Lyndon Johnson "for picking up his beagles by their ears and swinging them around while the dogs bayed."

Up there with the very holiest rituals in his life is a daily afternoon nap.

His books have been trashed by reviewers in some of the country's most respected journals.

A retired Unitarian minister, he may be the only clergyman willing to admit he is awed by the eloquence of Mother Teresa's life--and that her beliefs and naivete also drive him crazy.

And during a recent lecture, he succeeded in getting a convention of bankers to put their fingers together and belt out "The Eency Weency Spider Went Up the Water Spout." (Just as he expected, everyone knew all the words and all the finger movements.)

Meet Robert Fulghum, the world's latest and most unlikely folk hero.

His goofy-titled collections of essays, "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten," and "It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It" are ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the national best-seller list, having been 1 and 2 earlier in the month. "Kindergarten" is also the No. 1 book on the paperback bestseller list. Clearly the publishing phenomenon of the year (and possibly the decade when the final tallies are in), the books have been published in 16 languages in 62 countries--and counting.

Paperback rights alone on "Kindergarten" fetched Fulghum a $2.1-million advance.

It hasn't done much for his life style, though. A native of Waco, Tex., who extracts philosophy from such subjects as cuckoo clocks and chicken-fried steak, Fulghum still lives on his tiny houseboat on Seattle's Lake Union.

The place doesn't even have a bedroom, just a sleeping loft over the kitchen. Fulghum and his second wife, Dr. Lynn Edwards, a family physician, chose the houseboat because it reminded them of a camp where they'd been the happiest, because it offered great neighbors and because it would demand that they live simply and efficiently.

Fulghum hasn't rushed out to buy a fancy new car either. He still bombs around town in his shiny, 1952, paneled GMC truck--a "Jimmytruck," as he says in a sudden attack of Texas good ol' boy drawl.

"I'm interested in the quality of the ride. You get in this and you know you're not going anywhere in a hurry," he emphasizes, while driving a visitor to his only major indulgence since fame and wealth hit--a 10,000-square-foot studio, which allows him the luxury of thinking and writing and painting in big, open spaces.

Fulghum, 52, prefers to go slow and not miss what's right in front of his nose. And he acknowledges the warp speed at which he's been moving lately is hardly his style.

Since "Kindergarten" popped onto the hardback bestseller list just three weeks after it was published last year, Fulghum has promoted his books in 52 U.S. cities--and missed a lot of naps. Earlier this month he taped a rowdy yet unabashedly heartfelt special for PBS, complete with a cowgirl quartet he calls "one of the great tavern bands of all time."

He's hot on audiotape, with recorded versions of his essays selling nearly as briskly as his books. And he's become quite the media star. ABC-TV's "20/20" has a profile on Fulghum in the works. "NBC Nightly News" recently filmed him in some of the favorite Seattle haunts he hasn't time to visit lately.

Major television and movie studios have hounded him to let them produce TV series or movies based on his work (he's turned them all down). But for five days this month, Fulghum--who has never owned a TV set and rarely reads newspapers or magazines--became a TV commentator. Seattle's KING-TV invited him to talk about the news.

In his classic contrarian fashion, Fulghum told viewers that the news that truly affects their lives isn't found on TV or in the newspaper. He claims that for most people, "Action Central" broadcasts live from the front doors of their refrigerators. It's right there in trite sayings, cartoons or personal photos stuck on with cutesy magnets. Refrigerator news, he observes, typically comes in terse little commands: "garbage!" or "toilet paper!" or "From now on, everybody'd better (fill in the blank yourself) !"

Naturally, the station wants him to do more of this and has been talking to him about syndicating his philosophical sound bites. Newspaper syndicates have been after him, too, about writing a regular column.

It seems people can't get enough of the man called, simply, Fulghum--by everyone, including his wife and children. Even dog lovers are nuts about the guy.

Not to mention his competitors on the bestseller list. Says Wayne Dyer, whose "Your Erroneous Zones" was the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction title of the 1970s and whose "You'll See It When You Believe It" is currently on the list: "I think it's wonderful that books like Fulghum's, with simple, plain, beautiful advice, are selling in such large numbers."

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