Old Ned

Arizona Historymakers™

Arizona Historical Society

Virginia Melody Ullman

1907 - 2005

Honored as Historymaker 2003

Civic Philanthropist and Ardent Preservationist

Oral History Transcript:

Video by Pam Stevenson, Agave Productions Inc., for Historical League

Virginia Ullman has always loved nature, animals, and art. Her home displays a lifetime collection of art and artifacts, and her backyard is a sanctuary for desert creatures.

Mrs. Ullman grew up in Chicago, and still recalls fondly the family dog that walked with her to school each day. As a young woman she was active in Chicago’s community theater and volunteered for worthy causes from organizing Junior League charity events to assisting in local hospitals.

In 1937, Virginia Ullman moved to Arizona with her mother and her aunt, who was Headmistress of the Jokake School for Girls. Virginia fell in love with the desert and the Western lifestyle and built an adobe house in what is now Paradise Valley. She remembers riding her horse across the desert to Taliesin West to enjoy Saturday night concerts and to visit her friend,                                                                                                                                         Frank Lloyd Wright.

As a hostess at Jokake Inn, Virginia Ullman met many of the notable visitors to Arizona. She became friends with Elizabeth Arden when she came to Phoenix as a winter visitor. As Arden’s personal assistant, Virginia traveled to New York City where she met businessman, George Ullman. As president of Sun Chemical Company, he resided in New York and also had a home in Paris. In 1951, George and Virginia married, and she introduced him to Arizona.

Making their home at the base of Camelback Mountain, the Ullmans became generous supporters of many of Arizona’s cultural and environmental causes, including the Heard Museum and the Desert Botanical Garden. In 1960, Mrs. Ullman was a founding board member of the Phoenix Zoo. One of her proudest accomplishments was to help save the Arabian oryx from extinction by bringing it from the country of Oman to the Phoenix Zoo's breeding program.

With a passion for adventure, Virginia Ullman has traveled the world, shunning posh resorts and staying with local people in remote areas. She counts among her friends the Sultan of Oman, artists in Haiti, and the Hopi people of Walpi Village, on Second Mesa.

Virginia Ullman has been a longtime supporter of the Phoenix Art Museum and a friend to local artists. In 1968, she helped start the art museum’s Arizona Costume Institute. It began simply with Mrs. Ullman and her friends donating some of their designer clothes and bringing big-name fashion designers to Phoenix. But her goals for the Institute were much grander. As the founding board president, she wrote, “The history of costume is concurrent with the history of man and is irrevocably tied to the development of man - artistically, economically, and geographically. We hope to be able to serve in this facet of the development of civilization.”

Some of the recent beneficiaries of Virginia Ullman’s zeal for preserving culture and educating future generations are Arizona State University, the Institute of Human Origins, the Arizona Science Center, and Biosphere 2. During her travels, Mrs. Ullman collected seashells from every corner of the world. She says shells are her “. . . obsession and the most beautiful creation there ever was.” In 2002, the Biosphere in southern Arizona opened the Virginia Ullman Shell Discovery Exhibit. Filled with thousands of shells from her personal collection, she hopes the Biosphere exhibit is one more way she can help introduce children to the wonders of the natural world.

Today, Virginia Ullman continues to be a generous benefactor of the arts, education, and environmental organizations. She explains, “Sometimes when we’ve had a lot in life, we get to a point where we need to do things that matter.” Virginia has always lived her life with a spirit of adventure and when asked about her many remarkable experiences and achievements, she takes no credit, sayng, “I just believe in miracles.” Her zest for life, learning, and people continues to inspire a new generation of Arizonans.