August 31, 2009

Missing Sully

David Irish Sullivan--Sully to some, Dave to others--suffered an unexpected heart attack in his Chicago home on Friday, August 28. Despite efforts to stabilize his condition, he died in the hospital the next night at 9:45.

I don’t know quite how to proceed here. I lived with Sully for a couple of years in the late 1970s, and we remained good friends from then on. He was in every respect one of the finest human beings I have known.

While there is much I can say about Sully, it would be only a snapshot from a long and varied life. I did not know him during what I believe were his glory days, as a young rebel in the high school struggles that shook NYC in the late ‘60s. I only heard stories from him of the subsequent years as a revolutionary activist at Antioch College, a period that so rattled that supposedly liberal institution that, on the school’s 150th anniversary in 2003, the late ’60s and early ‘70s were all but excised from displays and speeches. I didn’t know him when, as part of the vibrant New Communist Movement, he went to work in industrial plants in Ohio (though I did get to skim the extensive FBI files he accumulated, pried open by the Freedom Of Information Act).

Nor was I in Chicago when he stepped his fervent activism down during the early 1980s. Sully went back to school in Chicago and in Austria, writing his masters on the social democratic militias there that waged armed resistance against the fascist Dollfuss regime and the Austrian Army in 1934. I followed from the East Coast the construction firm he and other old ‘rades there put together when he returned, which trained inner-city youth in building trades and, by the late ‘90s, became a leader in green construction of affordable housing.

Those are stories for others to tell. And it occurs to me that telling stories is the best way to remember Sully and to sketch a picture forthose who, like myself, weren’t there for big chunks of his life. There are scores of good Sully stories. He lived a packed existence, and told his own stories with verve and self-deprecating humor.

I also understand that his daughters, who did not live with him growing up, want to hear stories of their father. So I will tell one here, one I would have hesitated to commit to print (well, pixels) while he was alive, and I hope that other of Dave’s friends will weigh in with their own anecdotes or memories or just words of appreciation for a wonderful man, gone too soon.

Sully’s Big Security Adventure

Because he was big, gutsy and coolheaded, Sully did more than his share of security work for the movement. And he liked it. He had taken up fencing in high school and was a student of military history.

During the 1980s, when the Reagan regime was bending every effort (and breaking plenty of laws) to destroy the revolutionary Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, Sully got a call. Ernesto Cardenal, the great poet and, at that time, foreign minister of Nicaragua, would be speaking at a private house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Serious death threats had been made toward Cardenal, and the Nicaraguan contras (counter-revolutionaries) were based in the US and had working alliances with other Latin American reactionary groups.

As a foreign official, Cardenal had Secret Service protection, but Central America solidarity activists in Chicago felt that it was not to be trusted, Even if there was no funny business, how certain was it that a Secret Service agent would take a bullet for an official from a small, unfriendly foreign nation? So some experienced movement folks in Chicago were asked to form their own security squad, among them Sully, who borrowed a handgun for the occasion.

The two forces met, uneasily, at the house and agreed to work carefully around each other. As Sully was checking out a back stairway in the house, where no one was supposed to be, he heard footsteps coming down from an upper story. He drew down on the intruder and found himself holding a federal agent at gunpoint! Emergency over and both continued, more cautiously, with their tasks.

Obviously I was not in that stairwell, and folks who didn’t know Sully might suspect that this was a confabulation of his. But Sully was a pretty modest guy, and when I heard him describe this, more than once, there was a note of wonder in his voice that he had gotten the drop and lived to tell the tale. Wonder--and a touch of pride.

His only reward came after the event was over. Dave had brought with him a book of Cardenal's poems translated into English and asked him to inscribe it to me.

I have it to this day.

Sully, man, I miss you.


NobodyToToyWith said...

Sorry to hear about your friend Dennis. Chicago, huh? Trying to think if I ever ran across him, but the name doesn't ring a bell, and I was always pretty localized, although not in the 80s. Good story, I'm sure there are more, and glad you have them to remember. I'm sure his daughters will appreciate it.

Diana Balot Frank said...

Do you by chance have a picture of him?

John said...

He will be missed. Visited at his Chicago firehouse once and enjoyed his hospitaility. Don't ask me the year; the blur of post radical wave of the 70s into whatever we call came next...

Dennis has it right. harm hearted and direct friend....

Molly Sullivan Nestor said...

Just found your story looking for my "Papa" on Google. Thank you so much for posting stories. I knew in my heart that he had so many friends, but it is so wonderful to hear how you knew him and how he impacted your life. He was a huge heart and a huge bad ass all at the same time. Thank you for remembering him. From Molly Sullivan Nestor and my sister Erika Sullivan.

Unknown said...

Really appreciate your recollections of Dave. I didn't know his political side except at a distance, but we grew up together as cousins and friends, and were brought together more frequently when I lived in Utah with his folks and with Molly for a time. He was a gifted story teller and a life of adventures to draw from. We were only 6 months apart and he liked to tease me in a kind way, always. He was such a kind and sweet guy at heart- it always seem quite the contrast to hear about his political side. I especially enjoyed Djar Horn's reminicense: that is the Dave I knew most. thanks all ... I'm going to miss him a lot. Ann Gleason

Peter Rooney said...

My sympathies to friends and family members of David Sullivan. I met him in Austria, when I was on a study abroad program through the University of Illinois and he spent time with the program. He was older than us college kids but had much to teach and share with those who cared to listen, on everything from the communist and labor movement in the States to Austrian history. Had a great time with him on a road trip through Yugoslavia, and enjoyed follow-up visits in Chicago. My sister called to ask whether the David "Irish Sully" she read about in the Trib's obit section was the same I had told her about years ago and that she had heard such good things about in the Chicago building trades community. I was sorry to say one and the same. He will be missed.

Anonymous said...

Diana, you can find a pic of Sully if you google David Irish Sullivan.

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