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Chemist, rare book collector, banker succumbs to Covid-19 in nursing home

Thomas E. Cullen, known worldwide as a rare book collector and dealer, worried he was vulnerable to Covid-19.

Cullen, 86, was in a nursing home, couldn’t walk and had diabetes – all of which increased his risk of catching the virus and dying from it.

He expressed his concern weeks ago in a phone call with his younger brother, Patrick.

“His immediate comment to me on the phone was, ‘I’m in trouble,’ ” Patrick Cullen recalled. “He knew he fit the description.”

Thomas Cullen ended up being among the 41 residents of Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park who tested positive for Covid-19 in early April. He died April 15 in the nursing home, where he had been living since June.

Cullen was an expert on rare manuscripts and books, especially incunabula, or pre-printing press books, and early hand water-colored illustrated books, and he even sold some of his books to the Library of Congress, according to Patrick Cullen, who described his brother as “brilliant.”

“He could tell you about just about any book that’s ever been printed,” he said.

Born in Buffalo, Cullen was raised in Cattaraugus. His lifelong book collecting hobby started early on when he offered to clean out the barns and garages of customers on his newspaper route, in exchange for what he found inside.

“And, so, he had one of the greatest comic book collections in the county,” said his brother.

After graduating in 1955 from St. Bonaventure University, Cullen worked as a rocket fuel scientist for Olin Matheson Corp., conducting research on solid propellants for satellites and defense systems. He later worked in pesticide research and was vice president of Crompton & Knowles, a dye company in Reading, Pa. He returned to Cattaraugus in 1982 to work as vice president of the Bank of Cattaraugus with his brother, Patrick, who was bank president for 37 years.

Cullen retired in 1996 and relocated in 2003 to Orchard Park with his wife, Carol, to be closer to their daughter. They were married for 56 years when Carol died in 2015.

A serious infection in his foot landed Cullen in the hospital in 2019 and led to his becoming a resident at Father Baker Manor, according to Patrick Cullen, who said the nursing home took very good care of his brother.

Patrick Cullen said he and his family pray every evening before dinner for the nursing home staff and residents.

Patrick talked with his brother by phone a few days before he died.

“He said, ‘I’m fine.’ But it was a weak, ‘I’m fine,' ” he said. “So, he knew what was up.”

In addition to his brother, Cullen is survived by two daughters, Christina Wooten and Jennifer Bush; a sister, Barbara Rauh; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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