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Columbia Missourian

Sullivan cites career in public service in campaign for administrator

By Jaime Henry-White
August 3, 2012 | 5:01 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — After running for public administrator in 2004 and 2008, John Sullivan hasn’t given up his desire to serve Boone County.

“I could easily just say it is time for me to retire, but I am not wired that way,” Sullivan said. “I feel that I need to do something for others. It’s a calling. It’s a wanting to be of service in a more unique way.”

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Sullivan is one of two Republican candidates for public administrator on Tuesday's primary ballot. The public administrator handles the estates of people who have died, of minors and of those with mental illness or other disabilities when no one else is available to do so.

Sullivan, 67, can trace his calling the public service to his teenage years. At age 14, Sullivan entered the seminary and trained for nine years before deciding to leave priesthood.

“I will value those formations for my life,” Sullivan said.

This decision was pivotal and started Sullivan on a path of many service-oriented jobs. Sullivan received a degree in speech and drama from Creighton University and landed his first job as a religious education coordinator at a large parish in Omaha, Neb.

After earning a graduate degree in public administration with a specialty in gerontology from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Sullivan and his wife, Suzanne Sullivan, managed a 60-unit low-incoming housing complex where they developed positive relationships with their tenants. Sullivan believes this experience taught him “the human side” of the public administrator position.

During graduate school, Sullivan did an internship as a constituent aide for a congressman. The job taught him how to help constituents resolve issues with programs such as Medicare and Social Security. After the congressman lost his re-election campaign in 1977, Sullivan moved to become city administrator in Valley, Neb. Three years later, he moved to Aurora to serve as city manager.

“I know that (the candidates) all have different things that we bring to the position and offer in that capacity,” Sullivan said. “But I think those different areas I’ve worked seem to combine really well with the multi-disciplines that a person might find useful in this position.”

Sullivan said his work as a city official taught him how to deal with board members, city councils, citizen groups and city departments, mimicking the work he would be doing as public administrator.

“It is the combination of my academic career, my professional career, and certainly I bring my own personality and charm and value system into it,” Sullivan said. 
“I think those are all import ingredients that are essential to be a good public administrator.”

Sullivan said he learned about basic human care while working as a nursing home administrator for River Heights nursing home in Boonville. Sullivan lived in the facility during the week and knew his residents well. 

“I knew what it was like to take care of people. I knew the responsibility of doing that,” Sullivan said. “As an administrator, I knew my staff. Those people in the night shift knew who I was because I was in the building during their shift.”

Many of Sullivan’s residents had mental illnesses, which presented him with “many hands-on situations.” He recalled once having to counsel a man as he stood in the middle of interstate traffic.

Sullivan moved moved to Columbia in 1986 and continued working as a nursing home administrator for Columbia House, a 126-bed Medicare and Medicaid facility. 

“I am in the point in my life I can give back to the community,” Sullivan said. “I see that I have the tools to be able to do that, and I chose to do that in ways that influence people directly.”

Sullivan said he has learned the importance of listening and will carry that skill into the public administrator's office as he deals with clients, their loved ones and the agencies that serve them.

“You need to listen to what they have to say, because a lot of times, people are in difficult situations for any number of reasons and under the care of the public administrator,” Sullivan said. “... I think there is a real value in having the patience to listen to them, to allow them to share what they have inside of themselves.”

Sullivan now works as an independent insurance agent for Sullivan and Associates. He is more interested in what he can do in office than competing against other candidates. He would prefer the office not be political.

Sullivan hopes to make the public administrator's office more visible by producing public service announcements. He also wants to work more aggressively with agencies to maintain clients' independence and create volunteer programs that allow residents to become involved.

“I do feel the possibility of winning in the general election,” Sullivan said. “I just generally do feel better about things are going and my approach.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.