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September 26. 2013 9:25PM

Remembering an inspiration

Joe Sullivan: 'Human greatness'


Joe Sullivan's sons - Sean (wearing his father's hat) and Gary - hug after speaking at their father's funeral at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — The humor and humanity of Joseph Cronin Sullivan, family man, teacher, wordsmith, sports writer and columnist, were celebrated Thursday by a standing room only crowd gathered to say their final goodbyes at St. Catherine of Siena Church.

His sons, Gary Geiger Sullivan of Port Chester, N.Y., and Sean M. Sullivan of Manchester, did their best to "keep it short," sage advice their dad meted out as an English and creative-writing teacher at Manchester High School West for 34 years, and in doing so, gave touching, heartfelt eulogies that brought both men and women to tears.

Sullivan, 69, died Monday at the Hackett Hill Health Care Center after battling several diseases, including muscular dystrophy.

He was an inspirational man who loved teaching, his family, coaching, sports, particularly the Red Sox , and a bit of gambling, Gary Sullivan said, although his father always said don't bet more than you can afford to lose.

He told a story that showcased Sullivan's sense of humor. When Gary Sullivan was a young child, each week his father would take him, his brother and sister to a downtown bank that had an interior waterfall that went from the fourth floor to the basement. His father would point at a frog in the pool at the bottom and ask the children if they thought it was real.

Being the youngest, Gary said, he moved in for a closer look, put his head between rails and promptly learned he had his father to thank for his big head. He also thanked the Manchester firefighters who came to free him that day.

"He always used to say, 'Leave them laughing,'" Gary recalled. That day his father, brother and sister were left laughing, but not he or his mother.

He listed a few "Joe Sullivanisms," things his father always said, among them: "Be a good human being." "Keep it short." "Talk is cheap."

"The fact I got to call Joe Sullivan my dad is second to none," he said. "Dad, you were a great human being."

Sean M. Sullivan said his father was a great writer and inspirational speaker. The last time he heard his father give a formal speech was last year at the funeral of Jennifer L.S. Boldwin, Joe's daughter and Sean and Gary's sister.

"It was the saddest day of our lives," Sean Sullivan said. Muscular dystrophy had taken its toll on his father. His steps were slow and he could barely stand up, but Sean Sullivan said his father delivered the most amazing, inspirational speech about the loss of his daughter.

"I couldn't have been more proud," Sean said.

He doesn't know what his father's favorite day was but he said the favorite day of his mother -- Denise G. (Desrochers) Sullivan, who died in 2002 -- was Christmas. His mother's second-favorite day, Sean recalled his father saying, was each of the 364 shopping days leading up to Christmas. Sean Sullivan speculated his father's favorite day could have been St. Patrick's Day; or opening day for the Red Sox; Feb. 1, because it meant winter's back was broken; the last day of school, or game day.
 

"There was nothing like game day," he said of his father, an avid supporter of Manchester youth athletics who also coached the Trinity High School girls' softball, was a member of the Manchester Athletic Hall of Fame and has the major-league field at West Little League named after him.

"He loved writing and teaching, but his passion was coaching," Sean Sullivan said.

Joe Sullivan won a Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical, during which he taught a class at every high school in the state and published a book called "The Grand Poobah of Creative Writing." He also wrote "Column as I See 'em"  -- usually but not always on sports -- for the New Hampshire Union Leader for many years.

He was known for his great sense of humor. Two weeks ago, his death imminent, soft-spoken nurses from the Visiting Nurses Association arrived at his room at the Hackett Hill Health Care Center to talk with him about it.

He slowly raised his bed, looked up at them and said, "I can scratch another one off my list." The nurses gave each other looks questioning whether Joe Sullivan was in his right mind, Sean Sullivan recalled.

"On my list is hospice," his father told them. Sean M. Sullivan said one of the nurses nearly fainted.

As the crowd left the church, it was to the music of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," the iconic song played in the middle of the eighth inning during Red Sox games at Fenway Park, which Sean Sullivan said was one of his father's favorite things.

The Rev. Paul D. Montminy conducted the funeral service, telling the mourners they were there to celebrate a very important individual in all of their lives, especially in the eyes of God.

Carolyn Somma, a former West High School teacher, probably described Sullivan best. In an online remembrance posting she wrote:

"Perfect teacher.

Inspiring colleague.

Consummate family man.

Human greatness.

Joe Sullivan."

pgrossmith@unionleader.com


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