Remembering Paul Sullivan
In 1991, when Paul Sullivan — Sully to his many friends — accepted Lowell Sun General Manager Kendall Wallace’s offer to write columns for the paper, he told Wallace he needed a few weeks before starting the job, since he needed to learn how to type.
Sullivan learned, sort of. It was hunt and peck, and the columns were often dubbed “raw Sully” by editors for their misspellings and bad grammar. It didn’t matter.
Over the course of his 17-year career, Sullivan churned out 1,800 columns, from family tales to political commentaries to tributes. He had copies made, telling his wife, Mary-Jo Griffin, he’d like to publish them in a “bathroom book” one day.
That wish came true in September of 2013, five years after his death at age 50 from cancer, when Middlesex Community College published “Sully: The Words, Wit and Wisdom of Paul Sullivan.”
The handsome book — more appropriate for a coffee table than a restroom — features 100 columns plus photos, stories and a CD of radio interviews Sullivan did as a talk show host on WBZ-AM in Boston.
It’s a fitting tribute to Sullivan, one of the Merrimack Valley’s most intriguing personalities over the past 35 years.
“I think he’d love it — although he’d be embarrassed by the grand gestures of friends who helped his words live on,” says Griffin, who directs the Paul H. Sullivan Leadership Institute at Middlesex Community College, and worked on the book with editor Patrick Cook, executive director of public affairs at MCC. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit the institute and an MCC scholarship in Sullivan’s name. [ Editor’s note This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of mvm. ]
Affable and gregarious, Sullivan wore many hats during his colorful life. Besides working at The Sun, he was a talk radio host, professor, political junkie, toastmaster, behind-the-scenes philanthropist, husband, father, brother, son and friend. He loved cracking jokes, a tactic he used to mask his softer side.
Sullivan was born in Lowell on May 24, 1957, one of Kevin C. and the late Margaret “Peg” Sullivan’s five kids. He attended Lowell’s Sacred Heart grammar
school, grew up in Tewksbury, graduated from Austin Prep in Reading and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UMass Lowell, and a master’s degree in communications management from Simmons College in Boston.
He had three children, Ryan, Ashley and Kerri, with his first wife, Margaret, and two stepdaughters, Caitlin and Colleen Ferry, from his marriage to Griffin.
In the 1980s, Sullivan was a Tewksbury selectman, convenience store owner and an unsuccessful candidate in campaigns for Middlesex County commissioner and state representative.
Switching from runs for office to talking politics, Sullivan found his calling in 1989, when he became host of “Morning Magazine” on WLLH-AM in Lowell.
Two years later, he went to The Sun, filled in on WBZ, appeared on Channel 5’s “Five on Five” and eventually became a permanent host on WBZ.
The book was a daunting task, but Cook and Griffin relished it. According to Cook, the project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of sponsors and the offices of Marketing Communications and Public Affairs at MCC.
“It was brutal picking the columns, since it had to stay manageable,” Cook says.
Divided into several chapters — Lowell, politics, family, charities — with Cook’s introductions to each, the book is laced with anecdotes from family, colleagues and the politicians Sullivan skewered.
“Paul was a likable guy — everyone had a good relationship with him or a story about him,” Cook says.
Among them are Wallace and Sen. John Kerry. Recalling Sullivan, Wallace says: “He loved gossip — especially about the city. If there wasn’t something good going on, he’d make it up. But Paul was a good human — with great compassion, especially for the underdog.”
Kerry, often attacked by Sullivan but one of his final bedside visitors, notes: “You cared about what he wrote because he was deeply human and unflinchingly fair. He was a reporter’s reporter and the peoples’ pundit.”
Cook, Griffin and his family hope the book keeps Sullivan’s legacy alive.
“So many who lose a parent don’t have a keepsake like this. We feel lucky that we do,” says daughter Kerri Sullivan.
Legions of Sullivan’s fans in the Merrimack Valley and beyond feel the same way.