A great mentor never leaves you.

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook sig

More than six years after his death, Joe Sullivan is still teaching me how to write and how to be honest with myself.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I dropped advanced math at West High School so I could enroll in Joe Sullivan’s creative writing class.

The short story is I traded C’s for A’s. The long story continues to this day.

Joe’s friends will celebrate him Feb. 8 at the Raphael Social Club at the Annual Joe Sullivan Memorial Breakfast, which raises money for a scholarship in his name. Ten bucks will get you a plate.

One of my great joys since joining the Union Leader was to trade stories about Joe with comedian Seth Meyers, who like me counts him among his favorite teachers.

I remember feeling smug when Meyers recalled how Joe offered praise only when you deserved it.

“He was a positive soul and a positive spirit, but if you mailed it in, if you turned it in late, he’d make you pay for it,” said Meyers, who grew up in Bedford.

Ha! Thanks to selective memory, I only could recall Joe telling me how great I was.

The evidence says otherwise.

“Disappointing — No Cote pizzazz!” Joe scrawled across the top of one of my essays.

It should have been one of my biggest hits — a story about watching my cat, Sheena, give birth to four kittens. But on this occasion, I turned in a dud.

“Blah ending,” Joe wrote.

“No zip.”

“Too workmanlike.”

It’s no wonder this gem sat untouched for decades in a box of old school papers. I prefer the ones that say “Excellent!” and “You make me see!”

That’s what made Joe such a great teacher. I dropped below the bar I had set for myself, and he wasn’t about to let me slide.

“Well written, well constructed but not enough you in this. Make it come alive. Let loose. Somehow this is too much under control.”

Joe encouraged you to take chances, just as he did in the sports columns he wrote for the Union Leader under the brand “Column As I See ’Em.”

“It’s going to take several hundred words to reach the sports angle to this week’s column, but I hope you’ll stay with me until we arrive there,” Joe wrote in a 2008 piece.

Joe was miffed that Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson had called Manchester “a disgusting and dangerous city to live in.”

“Thanks to my 30-plus years of teaching English at Manchester High School West, I have a theory on what prompted Judge Abramson to say what she did: She’s spending too much time with disgusting and dangerous people,” Joe wrote.

Joe was proud of his school, his students and his colleagues.

“From my first day as a teacher, I loved the classroom. It provided me the opportunity to meet and interact with great kids. Sure, I had my share of thugs, lugs who wanted nothing to do with learning or cooperating. Fortunately, then as now, the great kids far outnumbered the not-so-great kids.

“So, for 180 days a year, I reveled in kids who wanted to listen, learn and laugh, cooperate, succeed.

“Most of my fellow teachers did the same. At least that’s how I interpreted their words, their smiles, their carriage, their attitudes.”

I don’t know what Joe would have to say about Manchester Proud, the group founded by business and civic leaders who are trying to come up with ways to help the district improve the city’s schools. But there are plenty of teachers who can appreciate what Joe had to say about his experience at West and how the challenges they face didn’t arrive overnight.

And there are still plenty of students who want to listen, learn and laugh, cooperate, succeed.

That enough zip for you, Joe?


The Annual Joe Sullivan Memorial Breakfast is 9-11:30 a.m. Feb. 8 at Raphael Social Club, 18 Blaine St. Tickets at $10 and guests are welcome. Proceeds go to the Joe Sullivan Memorial Scholarship.

Mike Cote is the business editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

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