In Memoriam

Old School, Class Act

Remembering John Sullivan, an "ordinary, yet extraordinary" conservative.

By 8.21.13

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America has lost a class act -- pure old school, a gentleman, the kind of old-time conservative intellectual the movement once had in spades. Though a big name to his friends and family, John was not well-known to the current conservative movement -- not like, say, John O’Sullivan, whom he sometimes had to distinguish himself from. He could have been a big name in the movement had he so chosen, but, after a while, he stepped back and assumed the role of a keenly interested observer, family man, and friend.

As to the last, you could easily become John Sullivan’s fast friend. He was gracious, gregarious, stylish, and always eager to talk to anyone. He was highly intelligent with a mind that forgot absolutely nothing, including people’s names and the details of their lives and the last time he spoke with them. As his grandson, Greg, put it, he had a genuine interest in everyone he met. As his daughter, Cynthia, put it, he was ordinary yet extraordinary.

John Sullivan was born in Millwood, New York on December 23, 1930, to John and Mary Sullivan, two Irish Catholics. He met his beloved wife Joan in Long Island City (Astoria), NY. She was working in the 5 and 10 when he spotted her, and thought she was gorgeous. They married in 1952.

The two would have 11 children together before Joan died prematurely from esophageal cancer in 1984. The cancer attacked quickly; it took her in 10 months. She was only 52. This left John with three children at home: Susan (12), Carol (14), and Cynthia (17).

Among them, Susan was born with severe cognitive and physical disabilities due to a chromosomal abnormality that was never identified. She never walked or talked, and couldn’t sit upright by herself, but was always happy and got lots of love. As her sister, Karen, remembers, “She always smiled and laughed and we all adored her. My parents never once thought about institutionalizing her.”

That didn’t change with Joan’s death. When Joan died, leaving John with Susan and the other kids as a widower, the family rallied. John called them together to formulate a plan to keep Susan at home and take care of her there, and they did it -- for Susan. They did that until heaven was ready for her. Says Karen: “She died in my father’s loving arms, and then he drove her himself to the funeral home after her death. I remember him saying he didn’t want anyone to handle her; she was very fragile.”

Susan was only 19 at her death.

Ultimately, three of John’s 11 children preceded him in death. The pain must have been terrible, but John suffered it in silence (at least to his later friends). He thought of life. To that end, the loving father saved lives as well as suffering the pain of watching others go. His daughter, Laura, knew this intimately, writing at his death: 

My Daddyo, he saved me first…. As a little girl he laid me on the counter, with a towel under my neck, and gently washed my hair when I started having alopecia. This was in New York. Also, in that backyard, he saved me when I covered my body with inner tubes and turned face down in the water in the backyard pool. I was by myself, and I don’t know how he knew, but he saved me….

When my bone disease started, and Children’s Hospital wanted to amputate my leg, my Dad said NO. He saved me. He would go home and sit on the couch and cry that one of his little kids was hurting. I found this out years later….

When Mommy died, Daddy needed some saving. We did what we could. He then saved our little handicapped Susan, whom he held in his arms when she died. He saved our sister Dianne from additional suffering and allowed her to continue to Heaven. He did the same for our Carol.

The heartache at those deaths must have been unbearable, but you never saw it in John’s cheerful demeanor. For all their lives, John was always there for all his kids, literally calling each of them (at least) weekly. As Linda said, even though he was “always very busy,” he was “never too busy” for them. He was always there to tell them they could “do anything, be anything, and achieve anything.” He always told them he was proud of them. His family was his greatest creation and pride.

Speaking of achieving, John himself achieved quite a bit across multiple careers. He served in the military from 1951-53 -- a Marine. He was a photographer. He built homes in northern Virginia. That’s just for starters.

In the 1960s, the busy dad took time to run for New York assemblyman on the Conservative Party ticket. He lost, but fared well. He also earned an endorsement from New York’s Mr. Conservative, William F. Buckley Jr.

Though John never got credit for it, he was one of the founding members of the Heritage Foundation, even helping to build the building that first housed the foundation. One of his colleagues, Larry Butler, recalls: “Heritage… was created by Paul Weyrich, who got Joe Coors to provide the seed money. It initially operated upstairs from a print shop until they purchased the old Stanton theatre. John Sullivan was a man of multiple talents and headed a crew who renovated the site into the first real HQ of Heritage…. He literally built Heritage Foundation, remodeling the old Stanton Theatre in Stanton Park DC.”

John Sullivan stayed, however, only for a limited time. As Larry Butler remembers: “John was part of the early brain trust of Heritage until Frank Walton was booted and Ed Fuelner was named President. John, along with Larry Pratt and Jim McKenna, were charged with conspiring to overthrow Walton. It failed and they were fired.” Butler says that John and crew took their case to Dick Larry of the Scaife Foundation, but it wasn’t enough to keep John at Heritage. Many of these details related to the early founding of Heritage, especially as related to John Sullivan, are not known.

John Sullivan continued to do other interesting work for the conservative movement. Though I’ve known him for years, he informed me just a few months ago that he worked in television and hired a young Roger Ailes and another modern-day media celebrity or two that I can’t confirm. Specifically, he worked for a major upstart television company called TVN (Television News Network) in New York City’s Columbus Circle. As Larry Butler told me: “Joe Coors funded TVN and hired Jack Wilson to run it from NYC. Paul Weyrich had a hand in the creation of this network that folded giving way for CNN to succeed when satellites replaced costly coax cable. John was hired by TVN…. I was hired along with three other guys to head up bureaus for TVN.”

The plan was for TVN to have bureaus in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It didn’t work out. But it was, arguably, a forerunner to Fox News Channel.

John Sullivan’s conservative politics were an extension of his faith. He was a committed, highly informed anti-communist Catholic. The battle of his time, which he embraced with gusto, was the fight against communism. He fought it as a Marine and as an intellectual. As to the latter, he served with all the old Cold Warriors. He was especially close to John Lautner, a longtime high-level member of Communist Party USA who ultimately became one of the most influential anti-communist spokesmen in America, regularly testifying before Congress. Together, John Sullivan and John Lautner worked with many prominent anti-communists of the 1950s and 1960s, and some who survived through current day, such as the recently departed Herb Romerstein.

John was also a committed member of a long-forgotten group called the Oriel Society, founded and headed by Dr. Maurice Leahy. This was a cadre of Catholic intellectuals bound by their commitment to orthodoxy, to good Catholic literature, and (among other things) anti-communism. I believe John told me that he once saw Fulton Sheen address that group. In fact, John first met John Lautner and Herb Romerstein at an Oriel Society meeting. It was a joy for me when recently, just last April, I connected John with Charlie Wiley, an influential anti-communist who still visits Grove City College every spring to captivate us with his memories. John introduced himself after Charlie spoke. They lit up as both recalled Charlie speaking at an Oriel Society meeting some 50 years ago.

Personally, I first met John Sullivan around 2005-6, shortly after I converted to the Catholic Church. He was introduced to me one day after Mass by my friend and colleague Michael Coulter.

We quickly became good friends. He often came to our home. The first time he came to dinner, he brought my wife flowers -- pure old school, a gentleman. He loved our kids, talked to them, gave them advice, always remembered their names.

I remember one visit to the house when he pulled me aside to inform me that he had a conceal-carry permit for a handgun, which was in his jacket. As the man of the house, he asked me first if I minded him carrying the gun. I could think of fewer people I’d trust more in my home with a gun. “Are you sure?” he said, gently exhorting me with his hands on my shoulders. “Oh, yes,” I said.

If I remember correctly, that was the same dinner when he told my wife and me and two other couples (after some prying) about how he and his children rallied together after the premature death of his wife to agree to take care of little Susan rather than have her institutionalized.

We also learned only then (again with prying) that he had served in the military. Amazingly, this humble man had never shared that information. For that matter, he also never told us he had insulin-dependent diabetes. As his daughter later told me, he was a proud man who didn’t share weaknesses.

I imagine, too, that though he was a proud man, he was also often hard on himself. For instance, I noticed only recently that John wasn’t getting up from his knees to take communion during Mass. Why? Did he feel unworthy?

I knew this: He was a Catholic traditionalist who ached for the Latin Mass. He felt a lack of sacredness in the Church today. His devotion to the Church never wavered. His daughter, Cynthia, who isn’t Catholic, tells us a funny story about her dad listening to her preach a sermon one day. When the service was over, he characteristically told her, “Good job, kid. I’m proud of you.” Then he looked at his watch and said, “Well, I better get going. I need to go to real Church now.” John said it with the usual cheer that could only make you smile.

There’s so much more I could and should say about John Sullivan, but I’ll end with just a few thoughts:

For a while a few years back, John was living in the Washington/Northern Virginia area. I can still picture him sitting next to my wife in the back of the room when I spoke one day at the National Press Club. They were talking, smiling, laughing. I asked my wife later why they were grinning. She told me, with a giggle and glow, that he had quietly said to her (gesturing toward me), “You sure do love him, don’t you?” John so appreciated observing the love and bond between wife and husband. It was something he must have sorely missed.

Though John died at age 82, the hardest thing about his death after a long, rich life is that he looked and acted like someone who would live well into his 90s. The last time I saw him, when my kids and I went fishing with him just a few weeks ago, he had that same youthful look. We couldn’t imagine that fishing trip would be our last get-together.

Unfortunately, not long after that, John developed a devastating double infection that felled him while alone in his apartment and quickly became septic. It was surprising he lasted the few remaining weeks that he did, probably only because of his good health.

I regret the things he had to say that we didn’t document, thinking we had more time. Two things stand out:

First, there was a wonderful anecdote he recently told us about George Bernard Shaw, the vaunted atheist, meeting with a group of monks. Shaw assuredly asked the monks how surprised they’ll be if they die and learn that none of what they believe is true. “Won’t you be surprised?” he asked them. One of the monks, not missing a beat, piped up with an alternative scenario: “Won’t you?” John was told this my Maurice Leahy, who, I believe John said, witnessed the exchange. He was planning to document it for me.

John was also planning to meet with Professor Kiron Skinner, the excellent Reagan scholar who is writing a book on the history of the conservative movement. I put them in touch. They were planning a lunch date. John wanted to tell her about Lautner, about Weyrich, about the Heritage Foundation. It never happened.

Nonetheless, John Sullivan is now in a better place. He’s there with all the anti-communist intellectuals he fought the good fight with and, most of all, with the family and loved ones who went before him, especially his beloved wife and three departed children.

John Sullivan, pure old school, a gentleman, a class act. He will be missed. As he’d wish, I’ll end in Latin: Requiescat in pace.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.