Richard “Dick” C. Sullivan, died peacefully in Falls Church, Virginia, last Thursday. All five children, most of his 13 grandchildren, and all five great-grandchildren were able to visit him in his final days. Known as “OWO” (“Oh Wise One”) to his grandchildren, Dick was beloved by his family and vast community of friends he and his late wife, Harriet Walters, enjoyed over 62 years of married life in Northern New Jersey, Philadelphia, Virginia, and St. John in the US Virgin Islands.
Born in 1928 to Cyril Sullivan and Nancy Williams Sullivan in Erie, Pennsylvania, Dick was raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandparents after his father’s untimely death in 1931. He grew up in a small brick house at 217 East Ave., along with a passel of cousins under the watchful eye of a close-knit community of Irish, Polish, and other recent arrivals to the neighborhood. Dick’s elders were active in civic, commercial and political life, several of whom were bricklayers and masonry contractors who built many public and private buildings that remain in Erie to this day. One uncle, Joseph C. Williams, served as Erie’s mayor; another was a three-term county registrar. His mother was a bookkeeper in the city public schools. Their diversity and commitment to family, neighbor and city, and to an honest day’s work, influenced Dick throughout his life. All who knew him enjoyed his intellect, congeniality, warmth, and sense of humor.
After graduating from East High School, Dick would be the first in his family to attend college, entering Allegheny College in 1944 and graduating in 1950 after a break for Army service in Japan. Marriage to Harriet, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and five children would follow.
Dick had a long and impactful career in public administration that began with his first job with the New York Port Authority as an administrative trainee in 1951. After seven years in the Port Division, Dick was loaned to the State Department to head the US Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where he also managed the American Theater stage where many luminary American artists appeared, including his personal favorite young artist named Harry Belafonte. Many years later, Belafonte would remark to Dick that his appearance in Brussels was most memorable because it was there that he met Eleanor Roosevelt, a source of great inspiration in his work with the civil rights movement.
Four years after returning from this overseas assignment, Dick was named Director of the World Trade Center, where he was responsible for the planning, design, and construction of the 110-story towers. In a 1964 interview, Dick commented on the inspiration behind the towers: “They’re not really just buildings, but structures unique in every aspect. We see the creativity of the scores of people who have contributed to them. When we talk of the United Nations, we generally think of the people in the organization and not the buildings that house them. When the Trade Center is completed, people from the world over will be working together daily, and it will represent something more than buildings.” As a testament to the skill involved in managing the Trade Center project, Peter Drucker commented that it was the best managerial job he had ever seen.
In 1973, Dick was named Vice President and Corporate Secretary for Conrail Corporation, created by act of Congress to rebuild and reorganize the US rail system after the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad. There he oversaw Conrail’s divestiture of the passenger rail business and leveraged rail rights-of-way to support fiber optic communications. A “railroader” at heart, he took great delight in his role as CEO of the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad whose main line circles Chicago and today has a fleet of 1,400 freight cars.
When retirement beckoned in 1993, Dick and Harriet split their time between Leesburg, Virginia and Coral Bay on the Caribbean island of St John. On St. John, Dick would read to kindergarteners at the Guy Benjamin School, while he and Harriet were generous supporters of local artists, attendees of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Paradise, and regular patrons of Skinny Legs, a local watering hole. It was here, on the deck overlooking Coral Bay that Dick and Harriet often commented that they felt most “at home”. The house they built, “Just Right,” became a haven for family and friends, honeymooners, or simply someone who needed a place to be. There they found plenty of laughter, great conversation, and the St. John spirit. As time wore on, Dick and Harriet took up residence at Goodwin House, a lifecare community in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, where they both were surrounded by loving friends and family until the end of their days.
Services to celebrate Dick’s life will be held at Goodwin House at Bailey’s Crossroads, Falls Church, VA on Sunday, March 4 at 1:30 pm. The family requests that any memorial gifts kindly be directed to St. John Rescue at www.stjohnrescue.com.