UM-Flint Alumnus Reflects on a Life of Liberal Arts

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UM-Flint alumnus Donald Tallman in his office at the Colorado Railroad Museum.
UM-Flint alumnus Donald Tallman in his office at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

A Liberal Arts Foundation

Alumnus Donald Tallman graduated from UM-Flint in 1977 with degrees in English and History, and with a variety of experiences that have served him both professionally and personally. At the base of it all lies a lifelong belief in the power of a liberal arts education.

“I’ll never forget my introduction to the University of Michigan-Flint. It was the first meeting with my advisor to talk about my interests and set my class schedule,” recalled Tallman. “A very tall, older, birdlike man with shock of white hair dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie emerged from his office. ‘I’m Dr. Firebaugh and you must be Mr. Tallman,’ [he said]. I wondered to whom he was referring for a moment. Here I was, a very young 17 year old, standing before this imposing figure. He was what I had always pictured as the classic English professor. He invited me into his office, his desk piled with papers and books. I was awestruck. He asked me about my educational goals. I boldly told him I wanted a classical liberal arts education—I wanted to become a Renaissance man. He smiled at my hubris and my audacious statement, peered at me, and said, ‘Well, Mr. Tallman, we can certainly try.'”

Donald Tallman as a UM-Flint Junior in 1976.
Donald Tallman as a UM-Flint Junior in 1976.

“So, Dr. Firebaugh led me, sometimes dragged me, through a curriculum and personal study that included Greek and Roman history and literature, European history and literature, German history, Russian history, African history, political science, art history, music, economics, and psychology,” continued Tallman. “One of the areas that I continued to nurture as a student was vocal music. I participated in the choir, under the direction of Carolyn Mawby. Ms. Mawby introduced me to a wide range of repertoire, from early music to modern atonal pieces. Those musical experiences were powerful, served as a source of inspiration and creativity, and provided me with the foundation for a long career as a professional tenor.”

Leading A Life of Variety

In October 2016, Tallman began his eleventh year as Executive Director of the Colorado Railroad Museum—recognized as one of the foremost, independently-supported railroad museums in the United States. He has the distinction of being the first non-railfan to lead the Museum. Noted Tallman, “the Museum has made great progress during [my time] in terms of care and interpretation of its collections, developing new audiences, expansion of educational programs, and increasing visibility outside the railfan community. Museum attendance has nearly doubled during [my] tenure, and the Museum’s budget has also grown by over 40 percent.”

His work at the museum also involves collaborations with local and state tourism agencies and other cultural organizations.

Before the Railroad Museum, Tallman’s career included operating, marketing, and financial management experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit arenas, with such organizations as Booz Allen Hamilton, an international management consulting firm; the Newberry Library, one of the largest privately endowed research libraries in the world; General Motors; and Wells Fargo Bank. He has also served as a consultant to several emerging organizations.

In his community, Tallman  serves on numerous boards, including the Budget and Audit Committee for the City of Lakewood, the Membership Committee for the National Western Stock Show Association, the Golden Visitor Center Board, and the Board of the Association of Tourist Railroads and Railroad Museums.

Donald Tallman preparing to sing the National Anthem for the Colorado Rockies.
Donald Tallman preparing to sing the National Anthem for the Colorado Rockies.

He has also been active in the arts community, both as a performer and as an administrator for a number of arts organizations in San Francisco and Denver. A professional singer, Mr. Tallman is in demand as a tenor and performs throughout the Denver metro area. He regularly performs the National Anthem at civic and professional sporting events throughout Colorado. In his spare time, Tallman enjoys climbing the mountains of Colorado as a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, as well as cooking. He and several of his favorite recipes are featured in the cookbook Denver Men in the Kitchen.

The Power of UM-Flint

When asked how his time at UM-Flint prepared him for his life, Tallman replied, “the UM-Flint website states that ‘UM-Flint’s pioneering faculty and staff set the tone in 1956—this is a ‘Community of Learners’—to cultivate graduates that will succeed in a changing world. The resulting atmosphere was, and continues to be, rich with curiosity, hard work, and heart.’ That tradition of cultivating graduates that will succeed in a changing world certainly applies to my own experience throughout my career and my life.”

“The faculty of UM-Flint taught me how to think, they inspired me to cultivate curiosity about my world. They reminded me that problems were just challenges to be overcome. They taught me that there are many different and elegant ways to come up with a solution or an interpretation. They taught me the importance discipline and intellectual rigor. They taught me the value of digging deeper, and that the outside readings contain the real gems of learning. They taught me to never stop challenging myself and to settle for anything less than excellence. They taught me to realize the importance of being prepared, of doing your homework, of meeting deadlines. They inspired me to be a lifelong learner. They taught me how to write, how to communicate, and ultimately, how to lead.”

In addition to the advising provided by Dr. Firebaugh and the musical inspiration of Carolyn Mawby, there were many faculty members who had a significant impact on Tallman’s UM-Flint career. He noted, “It’s difficult to narrow it down. Dr. Bruce Rubenstein was a professor and friend who mentored me throughout my undergraduate career.”

In 2013 Tallman was the keynote speaker for UM-Flint History's honors society induction ceremony. Pictured: Donald Tallman (left) with Professor Bruce Rubenstein (center) and Gregory Havrilcsak.
In 2013 Tallman was the keynote speaker for UM-Flint History’s honors society induction ceremony. Pictured: Donald Tallman (left), Professor Bruce Rubenstein (center) and Gregory Havrilcsak.

“When I was an undergraduate,” remembered Tallman, “UM-Flint was a very intimate campus with small class sizes and strong teaching faculty who demanded intellectual rigor, who were accessible, who provided rich subject expertise, and who prepared me for graduate studies at the University of Chicago.”

Tallman hopes that current and future UM-Flint students can have an experience as meaningful as his own. He advises them to, “get involved in the social fabric and extracurricular opportunities that are available to you at UM-Flint. Get out and stay out of your comfort zone. Ask questions and be engaged in your classes. Explore academic areas outside your major. Volunteer your time and give back to your  community. The discipline you develop during your academic career at UM-Flint will carry you through the rest of your career. Take time daily to exercise your body as well as your mind.”

For new graduates, he hopes they will learn to value and share the strength of their liberal arts roots. “History and English provide strong generalist skills and a solid foundation for a career in a wide variety of fields across many functional areas,” noted Tallman. “As an employer, I look for people with solid skill sets and broad interests. Emphasize the transferable analytic, writing, and presentation skills that were critical to your success as a student.”


For more information on the home of liberal arts at UM-Flint, visit the College of Arts & Sciences at umflint.edu/cas. For alumni services and information, contact the Office of Alumni Relations at umflint.edu/alumni or (810) 424-5450.

To contact Donald Tallman directly, email donald@crrm.org.

Communications Specialist for the College of Arts and Sciences at UM-Flint. Visit umflint.edu/cas for more news and stories!