John Habib's City Sports: Joe Sullivan stories recall a great storyteller
NEAR the end of Joe Sullivan’s funeral Mass before at a filled-to-capacity St. Catherine’s Church in Manchester Thursday morning, sons Gary and Sean requested everyone celebrate their father’s life.
In grand style later that day during a reception at Intervale Country Club, Gary and Sean cranked up “Sweet Caroline,” the Neil Diamond hit played in the middle of the eighth inning of every Red Sox home game.
Frank Harlan and Jim McQueeney, two of Joe’s closest friends and fellow former Manchester High West faculty members, joined the Sullivan boys in singing the song. Soon, everyone in the banquet hall joined in harmony, waving their arms.
Joe would have loved the moment.
“The Red Sox now have a shot of winning it all,” Gary told the gathering. “Dad will make it happen.”
In the spirit of celebrating the life of the great West teacher, New Hampshire Union Leader sports writer and youth-sports coach, here are a few more stories from some of his many friends.
-- Longtime soccer coach and English teacher Jack Amero gave some insight as to what it was like working with Sully at Manchester High School West:
“Joe Sullivan epitomized the teaching profession in America, a profession that maintains all are important here. Joe found worth in all kids from the very talented, such as Seth Meyers of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ to the kid on the corner who would delight his family by graduating from West High. To eavesdrop on one of Joe’s classes was a happening.
“When he was gathering the class together for the challenge of another adventure, he would invoke the wisdom of Errol Flynn in ‘Captain Blood.’ ‘Are ya’ with me, men?’ The class would respond in a loud and unified voice, ‘Aye!’ Off they would go on another voyage.
“When I became the English Department coordinator, I had a system where my teachers would list their preferences for teaching assignments for the following year. Joe would always request two classes of creative writing, his passion; two classes of regular kids; and one class of the most needy. All were treated with the same dedication. All remember him with the same fondness and gratitude.
“On a personal level, Joe was my friend. There were many Boston College games and tailgates, bowl trips, The Masters, and, teachers’ bus trips to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. Too many stories to recount. Too many memories that now bring tears. Great men are like that.”
-- Mark Labore, who taught 32 years at West and also spent three decades covering sports for the Union Leader, on coaching Little League baseball at West Side with Sully for 10 seasons:
“One thing an 11- or 12-year-old doesn’t want is another report card. Most of us remember why. But for Joe’s West Little Leaguers, report cards were a highlight of the season. Always the teacher, Joe graded his players on their abilities such as batting, throwing, catching, running and, most importantly, their baseball heart. Any report card with an encouraging personal comment earned an ice cream cone. I’ll tell you, those report cards put Joe on a first-name basis with Ben and Jerry.”
-- Longtime West boys’ basketball coach Ed Delaney talked about the numerous trips he took with Sully, including one to see the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League in 2001. He has a memorable picture of himself at New York Harbor with former Blue Knights baseball coach Bob Kerrigan, Harlan and Sully. You can see the World Trade Center towers behind them.
Delaney on how Sully loved to play Keno in Massachusetts: “One day we’re in Hampton, and Sully wants to go to Salisbury to play Keno for a few hours. We must have played 40 games, and we didn’t win anything significant. Just before we leave, Sully wants to stay just to watch the very next game that we didn’t bet on. Sure enough, our numbers come up and we’re all screaming at him. But that was Sully. He was a great friend, and I already miss him.”
-- Kerrigan taught physical education at West, and his friendship with Sully dates back to 1955, when they both played in North Little League.
“You’d walk by Sully’s classroom and you’d see him jumping up and down or shouting at the top of his lungs,” said Kerrigan. “You had to be there to see it, but it was always lively.
“Joe was a close friend of my family. He taught four of my children, and to this day, they all tell me he was their favorite teacher. To make that type of impression on high school kids, that says something right there about Sully.”
-- Pat Smith, dean of students and director of admissions at Trinity High, is a graduate of Manchester West and St. Anselm College. Smith has many funny stories to tell. One is about the time Sully entered a charity contest at Southern New Hampshire University in which each participant had one shot to score against Manute Bol, who at 7-foot-7 is still the tallest player ever to appear in the NBA.
“During the whole contest, no one is coming close. Bol was swatting every shot away easily. Sully’s standing in line, waiting for his chance and telling everyone how he’s going to shock Bol and score against him. Sully takes the ball and dribbles to his left, with Bol anticipating he’s going to try a shot over him. Instead, Sully tries a move he claimed he had practiced many times and had down to perfection.”
Things didn’t go quite as planned.
“Sully swung the ball around his waist and tried a behind-the-back shot,” Smith recalled. “Bol was caught off guard, but so was everyone in the front row of the side bleachers when they saw the ball heading towards them. Sully’s shot missed the basket by a mile. Bol just stood there wondering what just happened, and Sully just walked away shaking his head.”
-- Sully always called me “Bibby” from the first day we met working together at this newspaper 35 years ago. I was a teenager at the time, and he sat me down to explain how to seek out sources for stories.
“Now, Bibby, if you ever need to track down a local coach for an interview or hunt down a local score, you know where to go, right?,” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, picking up a Manchester phone book. “Right here.”
“No, no, no,” he said emphatically. “Listen to me. Any time you need a local coach, call the Raphael Club. After the games, most of the city coaches go there before they go home. Just tell the bartender you’re from the Union Leader. Call the Raphael Club because that’s where you’ll find them. Trust me, I know.”
Sully was absolutely right. I won’t mention names, but I got some of my best quotes from coaches chugging down beers at “The Raphe.”
I will never be half the writer Sully was, but until a couple of weeks ago, when his already failing health took a marked downturn, he’d call from his bed at the Hackett Hill Healthcare Center just to say how much he enjoyed reading my column.
That meant the world to me. He meant the world to me.
I love you, Sully.
“City Sports” is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org.