William T. Sullivan, 1942-2019

Every year on March 2nd I write about my best friend for all eternity, Joe Sullivan, who was killed March 2, 2006, in an automobile accident at the age of 23. I think about it the other 364 days a year as well.

Joe’s parents have kept his memory alive the past 13 years through their tireless charitable efforts, raising money for college scholarships and others less fortunate in the Binghamton, New York, area. Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan have invested hundreds of hours of their time in helping others, embodying truly the humble, giving lives one expects only to read about or imagine in idealized versions of how the world really ought to be.

Last week Joe’s father, William “Bill” Sullivan, died at the age of 76. Always an optimist, Mr. Sullivan quipped to his wife when his time was near… “I get to see Joey first.”

I must have met Bill Sullivan some time in the mid-1980s. He was one of my friends’ dads. Your friends’ dads are all sort of alike, no? They’re like you’re own dad, but probably appear a little goofier, because they never really have to be strict with you. Somebody else’s dad never tells you to brush your teeth or do your homework (that’s what your own dad is for); your friends’ dads just tell corny jokes and offer you a soda. Not a bad deal.

Mr. Sullivan was a house painter. Inside and outside, he painted nearly every house on the west side of Binghamton, including that of my parents. Mr. Sullivan was pretty businesslike when it came to painting. He showed up, did his work, took a break for lunch, finished up his work, then went home. Oh, he still told corny jokes to anyone in earshot, but he still got the job done. Towards the end of his 40-plus years in the business he was doing mostly repeat jobs for customers whose homes he’d painted decades ago. Perhaps he would have painted a house for a family in 1987, and then 30 years later the kids had moved out, the husband had died, and the wife knew only one painter to call. Someone they trusted to do the work and not rip them off. It sounds like a joke but that really did describe most of his customers. And I think there was no better example of this than my own mother.

When I was a kid Bill Sullivan was someone to look up to as a trusted adult. As I grew up and became an adult myself (I use the term loosely) I found this to be more and more true. Raised five boys, went to church, owned his own business, and by the end had been married to the same woman for over 50 years. That’s a solid life. For someone who was so giving of his time and energy even 76 seems to young to go. But your time to go is your time to go, and Bill Sullivan’s time was February 23, 2019.

Timing means so much in life. That Bill Sullivan happened to be born the same year as my dad and go the same high school… that was good timing. Having a son born two months before I was… that was especially good timing. That he would lose his son so close to when I lost my dad… also noteworthy in the bond that created between us.

I looked forward to seeing him every spring, when the Sullivans would raise money with a charity poker tournament in Joe’s memory. Last April when I saw him he was in perfect health, and that’s how I’ll remember him. Every April, sharing stories of the past year, playing with my son. “Grandpa” Sullivan was so good with the next generation of kids who came into his life, and I’m glad my son got to be a part of that extended family. Have I ever mentioned my son’s middle name? It’s Sullivan. And it requires a certain dignity. (And a little silliness.)

Thank you, Mr. Sullivan, for being part of my life the past few decades, eventually befriending three generations of O’Connells. You’ll always have a special place in my heart…

and on my son’s ID cards.

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About moc

My name is Mike O'Connell. I am 36 years old and live in Northern Virginia. I am a teacher, a musician, and an enthusiast of all things American.

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