Incoming freshman entering Gerald Sullivan’s English Class at Savio Prep in East Boston were met with a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson written on the blackboard. The poem, Richard Cory, told a narrative of a very successful man that had seemingly everything in the world–style, respect, wealth. Mr. Sullivan, or ‘Sully’ as he was affectionately known among students, left the last line off the poem and challenged his freshman students to guess what the last line was. In the days before the internet, smart phones and Google, students did not have the answer at their fingertips and struggled to find the appropriate words that ended the poem.
“It’s a shocker,” Mr. Sullivan would tell his students all week. By the end of the first week of school if no student had guessed the poem’s ending Mr. Sullivan would approach the blackboard and write the line, “Went home and put a bullet through his head”. He’d then stand back and marvel at the poem and exclaim “I wish I wrote that!”.
Mr. Sullivan, a beloved educator who taught English and Latin at Savio until the school closed in 2007, died on Monday, Jan. 29 at the Life Care Center in Stoneham after battling cancer.
During his teaching career Mr. Sullivan’s love for words, poems, and literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway inspired generations of students to turn to books and poetry as a way to escape the stresses of daily life. He taught his students the therapeutic nature of reading and encouraged each student to read at least one hour every night.
However, Mr. Sullivan was by no means mainstream and while students were introduced to the classics like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, his love for more under appreciated works set him apart from other teachers. In his class students could be found reading Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” or an anthology of poetry by W.D. Snodgrass, who would occasionally visit Mr. Sullivan’s English Class and read poetry to students when in Boston. Randall Jarrell’s five line poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was one of Mr. Sullivan’s favorites and he would analyze the poem’s imagery for days with students.
“(He was a) great man who left a lasting legacy in the hearts and minds of his students,” said Matt Ohlson. “His passion and commitment will not be forgotten.”
Aside from his love of poetry and literature Mr. Sullivan was a huge fan of classic films like Casablanca, Little Caesar and numerous others. He would entertain his students at times with his spot on impersonations of Edward G. Robinson or Charlie Chaplin.
He also had a very large and eccentric collection of old Blues records in his office and at some point during the day students could hear Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Howlin’ Wolf blasting from his record player.
Mr. Sullivan was born in Chelsea on Nov. 6, 1948, the son of the late Gerald J. and Gertrude V. (Leavitt) Sullivan. He was raised in Chelsea until his family moved to Stoneham 55 years ago.
Mr. Sullivan would call Stoneham home for the rest of his life but his heart was always at Savio. He was a 1966 graduate of Savio (formerly St. Dominic Savio High School) and would often reminisce of the “Old Savio’ days with students. During his time as a student at Savio the school was a follower of the 18th century Latin movement, which holds the “classics” to be the basis of an educated mind. Mr. Sullivan continued this tradition at Savio until the school’s end, making sure Latin was an offered language for student as the school’s sole Latin teacher.
“If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” said Joseph Ricupero. “I don’t think Sully ever worked a day in his life because every single day, you could tell how much he loved teaching.”
Mr. Sullivan went on to graduate from St. Anselm College, Class of 1970 and received his Master’s Degree in Education at the University of Iowa. After Savio closed he went on to teach at Burlington Middle School.
“His always believing in me, especially when I didn’t believe in myself, has been embedded in me throughout my adult life,” said Lauren Kelley. “He taught me that I am in fact smart, creative and strong and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Mr. Sullivan is survived by his two brothers; William D. Sullivan and his partner Nancy Roach of Somerville and Robert E. Sullivan of Amherst, New Hampshire and his sister Jean Ronco and her husband William of Gloucester. Mr. Sullivan was the uncle of Gregory, Therese, William, and Daniel Ronco, Christine Sullivan, and Patrick J. Sullivan.
His Funeral Mass was be held in St. Patrick Church in Stoneham last Friday. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, 30 Speen St., Framingham, MA 01701.