Investment Firm’s Communications Director Whistles ‘Happy Birthday’ Nearly Every Day

Pucker power: Ullman's childhood obsession has lasted a lifetime.
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Oct. 28, 2013, 5:44 p.m.

With the pres­id­ent of the Bank of China ar­riv­ing for a meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton hos­ted by the Carlyle Group, lead­ers of the high-powered private-equity firm had a cru­cial job for Chris­toph­er Ull­man, their dir­ect­or of glob­al com­mu­nic­a­tions.

Ull­man, who had been in­duc­ted re­cently in­to the In­ter­na­tion­al Whist­lers Hall of Fame, was tasked with whist­ling Li Liu’s fa­vor­ite song, “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme from the 1997 hit movie Ti­tan­ic.

The night be­fore the big event in Septem­ber 2012, Ull­man went to You­Tube to learn the song and prac­ticed late in­to the night at his Al­ex­an­dria, Va., home. The next day he walked in­to “an au­gust room” at the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, and an in­ter­pret­er told Li what was about to hap­pen.

Ull­man didn’t un­der­stand the Chinese, but when he heard the word “Ti­tan­ic” he watched a smile come across Li’s face. Then, as he star­ted whist­ling the song, Ull­man said he heard a sound that wasn’t sup­posed to be part of his act.

“The top banker in China was hum­ming along note for note with his hand in the air. It is ec­stasy,” Ull­man said dur­ing a per­form­ance at a TEDx Mid­At­lantic event Sat­urday at the Sid­ney Har­man Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton. “I’m think­ing, “˜Don’t screw this up; you’re go­ing to ru­in this guy’s life.’ “¦ This was the key to this man’s heart.”

“It was in­cred­ible,” Ull­man said in an in­ter­view last week­end. “I’ve been whist­ling for 45 years — in Wash­ing­ton for 26 years — and I’ve ex­per­i­enced noth­ing like it.”

Ull­man, 50, is one of the many unique per­son­al­it­ies in Wash­ing­ton who have worked their way to the top of their pro­fes­sions while nur­tur­ing and per­fect­ing a pas­sion in their private lives. Only in Ull­man’s case, his per­son­al avoca­tion has be­come a very pub­lic show­case.

It all star­ted when he was 5 years old, grow­ing up in Mas­s­apequa Park on Long Is­land, N.Y., listen­ing to his fath­er whist­ling his fa­vor­ite tunes from Gil­bert and Sul­li­van. Whist­ling be­came his ob­ses­sion to the point where, when he was 13, the cus­tom­ers on his pa­per route would tell him, “I heard you com­ing.”

Dur­ing col­lege at the State Uni­versity of New York (Bing­hamton), Ull­man ex­pan­ded his rep­er­toire to jazz and blues by whist­ling with a friend’s band. It was also at SUNY that Ull­man plugged in­to Wash­ing­ton — he in­terned in the of­fice of then-Rep. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., work­ing along­side a young An­thony Wein­er, who would go on to win sev­en terms in Con­gress.

About a year after his gradu­ation in 1986, Ull­man re­turned to Wash­ing­ton and began climb­ing the lad­der in com­mu­nic­a­tions: He worked for a small pub­lic-re­la­tions firm; for a cit­izens’ ad­vocacy group; for former Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio; for former Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion Chair­man Ar­thur Levitt; and for the White House un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, as spokes­man for Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget Dir­ect­or Mitch Daniels.

Then about 12 years ago, Ull­man moved to the Carlyle Group, cofoun­ded in 1987 by Dav­id Ruben­stein and two oth­er fin­an­ci­ers and which now man­ages $180 bil­lion in as­sets, ac­cord­ing to For­bes.

Mean­while, Ull­man was rising through the ranks of the world so­ci­ety of whist­lers. While hik­ing and whist­ling (of course) in Shen­an­doah Na­tion­al Park in 1992, a friend told Ull­man about the In­ter­na­tion­al Whist­lers Con­ven­tion held each year in tiny Louis­burg, N.C. Ull­man went “and, much to my shock, I ac­tu­ally won a prize,” he said. “I knew there was hope for me. I com­peted for nine years and won the cham­pi­on­ship four times. Last year I was in­duc­ted in­to the In­ter­na­tion­al Whist­lers Hall of Fame.”

As his fame spread, Ull­man was in­vited to ap­pear on The To­night Show with Jay Leno; he whistled with the Na­tion­al Sym­phony Or­ches­tra play­ing in front of the Cap­it­ol; and these days he whistles “Happy Birth­day” to people about 350 times a year. “I end every one with the re­frain, “˜I’m glad you were born,’ “ he said.

The point is not to be a celebrity, Ull­man said. “It’s something I do for fun”¦. It’s very simple — I’m not cur­ing can­cer — but it does make people happy.” (Hence the name of Ull­man’s web­site, happy­whist­ler.com.)

Bush will vouch for that. When he was work­ing at OMB, Ull­man was told by Daniels that the pres­id­ent wanted to hear him whistle in the Oval Of­fice. When he walked in, “Bush was at his desk with his feet up and an un­lit ci­gar in his hand,” Ull­man said. “He asked, “˜Do you need some wa­ter? Do you need to stand or sit? How do you get star­ted?’ I told him, “˜I’m moist and puckered, Mr. Pres­id­ent, and ready to go.’ “

Ull­man asked Bush what kind of mu­sic he liked, and the pres­id­ent said “coun­try.” Bush sug­ges­ted the song from The Lone Ranger. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was from an Itali­an op­era,” Ull­man said.

After they were joined in the Oval Of­fice by Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Al­berto Gonzales, a some­what nervous Ull­man per­formed four pieces: Beeth­oven’s Fifth Sym­phony; “Take the “˜A’ Train” by Duke El­ling­ton; “Battle Hymn of the Re­pub­lic”; and “Du­el­ing Ban­jos” from the movie De­liv­er­ance.

Later, when Ull­man put out a CD of whistled songs, he sent a copy to Bush. The pres­id­ent replied with a typed mes­sage thank­ing him, in­clud­ing a hand­writ­ten note at the bot­tom: “Best al­ways to my friend the whist­ler. George Bush.”

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