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John Sullivan’s lifelong desire to help others directs his public mission

Monday, October 13, 2008 | 9:23 p.m. CDT; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 23, 2010
John Sullivan, Republican candidate for Boone County public administrator.

COLUMBIA — The red metallic cell phone rings loudly, interrupting a sentence. It's an unknown caller. "John Sullivan. How may I help you?" the public administrator candidate asked.

The greeting reveals more about Sullivan's outlook on life than it would for most people. After hanging up, the phone beeps again. Smiling, Sullivan admits he can read texts, even if he can't send them.

More about John Sullivan

PERSONAL: Age 62. He is married to Suzanne Sullivan. They have eight children.
CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: vote-sullivan.com
OCCUPATION: Self-employed at his insurance agency, Sullivan and Associates
EDUCATION: Attended seminary; bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Creighton University, 1971; master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in gerontology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, 1975
BACKGROUND: Former apartment manager for low-income housing complex; former city administrator in Valley, Neb.; former city manager in Aurora; former nursing home administrator at Columbia House. Knights of Columbus member. Attends Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.


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Sullivan's tenure in Columbia is the longest he's spent in one place, but it's not where he started. He grew up in San Antonio, the son of an Air Force drill sergeant father and a mother who worked several jobs.

It was in the schoolyard that Sullivan learned how to empathize and how to fight. He and his younger brother were often picked on by the majority of Hispanic kids in his school. He often found himself defending his brother.

"I was a pretty rough and tough kid myself," Sullivan said. "I would have to come and rescue him and beat up other kids."

By the sixth grade, Sullivan's parents enrolled their kids in a Catholic private school. It was there that Sullivan discovered his passion in life: helping. He decided on the life of a priest. Sullivan spent nine years in seminary, starting at age 14.

"It was certainly during my teenage, formative years that I was in the seminary," Sullivan said. "The significance is that it helped me be concerned about providing services to others, and I still carry that today."

During seminary, Sullivan earned a bachelor's degree in speech and drama from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

Eventually, Sullivan decided the priesthood wasn't for him. He earned his master's degree in public administration at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, with a specialty in gerontology. As a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Columbia, he finds religion remains part of his life.

"It has provided me a value system that I try to adhere to," he said. "I think it's really important that society as a whole needs a standard that we can follow to try to be our best selves, and certainly an institutional church is something that helps give us that standard."

Sullivan has worked in a variety of jobs in a variety of places. He listed the skills he learned from each of his jobs as a congressional aide, a city manager, a nursing home administrator and an insurance agent.

"All those have given me components that are directly applicable to this position," Sullivan said. "So when I reflect back and ask myself now: ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?' It's like, huh, I guess I want to help people."

Before all that, Sullivan was a religious education coordinator in Omaha. Sullivan pointed out two important events in his life that occurred while he was there: He established a Sunday school class for children with mental disabilities, and he met and married his wife, Suzanne.

Sullivan knew several of Suzanne's cousins at Creighton who constantly nagged him to meet her. Finally, his roommate, who married one of the cousins, asked him to take his wife to a family function, only to find himself set-up to meet Suzanne. That was in August. By the next August, he and Suzanne had married. Nine months later, their first daughter, Teresanne, was born.

Bekki, John Paul, David, Dorothy, Libby, Maggie and Michael followed. Now, the eight children are mostly grown and live in different states, but Sullivan proudly described their accomplishments, marriage statuses and jobs.

Sullivan used his love of cooking as a tool to woo Suzanne. He once made a batch of fried corn chips with vegetables, like an omelet. He then called Suzanne, described it to her and asked if she wanted some. Even though she was unsure, he said, "Well, I'm going to bring it over!"

"I do silly things," he said.

Besides cooking, Sullivan also gardens, fishes and makes wine. He experiments with different flavors of wine, using fresh fruits. He grows some of them in his backyard.

Sullivan's creativity is displayed in the names and descriptions of his wines. Some are sentimental as well.

"Grapes of Friendship" features the flavor of grapes from his neighbor's yard in the wine and words of thanks and friendship on the label. He also made wine for his wife's class reunion. And "34" commemorates their 34th wedding anniversary, with a photo of the couple and their son at his graduation from the same day.

Sullivan is technically at retirement age, but he still works as an insurance agent. To him, retirement means it's time to do something else, instead of spending his days playing cards and taking afternoon naps. Sullivan is a member of the Knights of Columbus, which, he says, offers another way to serve. He feels compelled to make sure that he leaves something worthy behind after he dies.

On the campaign trail, Sullivan carried a helium tank in one hand and a stack of information cards in the other, setting a brisk pace from door to door. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he wasn't having much luck finding people at home, which is odd, he said.

Standing on a front porch cluttered with kid's toys and Big Wheels, staring at yet another closed door, Sullivan referenced the unused helium tank and said, "This would've been a great house to give a kid a balloon."

As he waited after ringing a doorbell, he noticed a sign on the house and started humming, "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Sullivan's kids chipped in to pay for singing lessons last Christmas. Singing is one thing he could've done better through life, but there aren't many things he regrets.

"I wish I would've planned better in proposing to Suzanne," he said.

He did get on his knee, but he just popped the question casually at her place. With all the TV shows and publicized proposals now, he regrets not making the event more romantic. Otherwise, he believes life is reality and regrets aren't, making wishing irrelevant. His life has been good and given him many diverse experiences, he said.

He quickly noted how those experiences would help him as a public administrator.

Suzanne Sullivan recalled a flood in Nebraska that was so bad that she and their kids evacuated. Sullivan, the city manager at the time, stayed behind without seeing his family for days.

"His responsibility was to the citizens of the community, and that's something we accepted," Suzanne Sullivan said.

She is well-acquainted with her husband's energy and dedication to his job. She recalls many nights he stayed late as a nursing home administrator so he could get to know the staff working the night shift. It didn't get in the way of his parenting, though. He always took the time to attend his kids' band concerts, piano recitals and activities.

Perhaps it comes from his first degree in speech or his years of working directly with people, but Sullivan considers communication his gift. That means not only talking but also listening with an open mind, he said. He believes that opportunities shape each person. Remembering that his life could have easily led him elsewhere helps Sullivan maintain an open mind.

"Prestige isn't what cuts it," he said. "It's being a good quality person."

Some of the people he admires are people who didn't have the same educational opportunities or financial means but are influential and effective leaders, such as former First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton. He also looks to his mother, who is 78 and has involved herself in her community over the past 20 years.

Sullivan's mother started her civic service later in life. So, though she didn't inspire him to become civically active, she has set a precedent. His energy and enthusiasm indicate he isn't planning to slow down soon. Back to the door-to-door campaigning, with 50 cards distributed, Sullivan estimated he had 2,000 more houses to visit before exhausting his supply.

"I've got a lot of work to do!" he said, setting off toward another door, hoping it will open.

 


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