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A Visit with Dr. Neil Sullivan '36 A Visit with Dr. Neil Sullivan '36
"I want to be remembered as someone who liked kids."

My father emigrated from County Kerry, Ireland, at age nine. He was a wonderful man but not ambitious. He loved his family. My mother was ambitious. Her mother was English and well educated, all college people, and the women tended to become nuns who managed hospitals and schools. My grandmother died when my mother was eight, and my mother, who was very bright, could stay in school only until eighth grade.

We lived in a poor section – they called it the "Irish ghetto" – of Manchester, New Hampshire, in a tenement. I was born in 1916, the third son, and without my mother I'd never have gone to Keene Normal School. She begged, borrowed, and scraped to send me there in 1933, and when I was at the school she sent me a dollar a week. I think I used it all up at Johnny's Diner. It was my first time away from home, and I was very homesick. I couldn't go home at all because I had no money, no way to get to Manchester.

Now, my mother was a very formal lady, and she didn't like nicknames. When I left for Keene, she said, "Make sure people call you Cornelius," which is my real name. It was a difficult assignment! All the way through Keene, people called me Curly, even though I called myself Neil.

I did the three-year program at Keene, and I did well in school. I was class president and was on the basketball and track teams. I wanted to be the top person in a school, but with just a teaching certificate I knew I had to start at the bottom. I took a job at a one-room school in Glencliff, New Hampshire, where I had nearly 50 kids in eight grades. I liked kids, and that helped me to be successful. I tried to do activities and projects in small groups, and early on I believed in involving parents.

After teaching for a couple of years, I wanted a regular bachelor's degree, which I got by going to summer school at Fitchburg [Mass.] Teachers College. Next I wanted a master's degree, and it took me a couple of years to save up, but I went to Columbia and got it in 1941. Then the war came along. Fortunately I came out healthy, and anxious to get to work.

Dr. Neil Sullivan courtesy photo

His days are spent quietly now in an assisted-living facility in Meredith, N.H., watching his beloved heartbreakers, the Red Sox, on television and chatting with the nurses (who dote on him) and the occasional visitor. It takes only a few minutes of conversation, however, to sense the energy, dedication, and enthusiasm that were hallmarks of Dr. Neil Sullivan's career as a top school administrator and national civil rights leader.

Dr. Sullivan, a 1936 graduate of Keene Normal School, came to national attention in 1963, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, acting at the behest of President Kennedy, asked him to go to Prince Edward County, Va., to reopen the public schools, which the county had closed in 1959 rather than integrate. (White students attended tax-subsidized private schools.) On two weeks' notice, he opened the Free School Association, offering formal education to black students for the first time in four years.

Building on the success of his efforts in Virginia, Dr. Sullivan was hired in 1964 by the city of Berkeley, Calif., to desegregate its elementary schools. Under his leadership as superintendent of schools, by September of 1968 Berkeley became the first large city in the country to achieve complete school integration. Dr. Sullivan's next job was perhaps his most contentious: commissioner of education for the state of Massachusetts. In that capacity he spent three years confronting Louise Day Hicks and the rest of the all-white Boston School Committee in a fight to integrate Boston's notoriously divided schools. Dr. Sullivan later returned to California to chair the department of educational administration at the University of California, Long Beach. He and his wife, Martha, retired to New Hampshire; she passed away in 1997.

On a summer morning, he reminisced about his life for Keene State Today.

– Susan Peery

I was married and had two sons, Roger and Michael, and was hired to be superintendent of schools in Sanford, Maine. But I never forgot about my "next step" – to get a doctorate. It was hard to get into Harvard, and I was surprised to be admitted. I went to school every summer, and the wonderful people in Sanford permitted me to be fully enrolled for a year while I finished my doctorate in 1956.

'Without my mother I’d never have gone to Keene Normal School. She begged, borrowed, and scraped to send me there in 1933.' At Harvard, I had done research on ungraded schools – sort of like the old one-room schools but more enlightened – because I believed it was best to let kids go at their own pace. In East Williston, New York, on Long Island, where I was superintendent, I established the first ungraded school system in the East. In 1963, President Kennedy said that something had to be done in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and he made the reopening of the schools there a focal point of civil rights. He put Robert Kennedy in charge. RFK heard about me and my Harvard research, and he called and asked me to be the coordinator of school integration for Prince Edward County. He also had me come to Washington to meet the president, who was even more personable than you can imagine.

Dr. Neil Sullivan photo courtesy Gutman Library I had to find a staff, buildings, and buses, all in two weeks. We got a lot of publicity, and volunteers came in from all over the country. There was a lot of conjecture about what the local white reaction might be. In the process, our home was firebombed and someone fired rifle shots into the office, but we weren't damaged at all.

The big question was, Would the kids come? We decided to feed them. We offered breakfast and lunch, and not just on school days but also on the weekends. When we opened school, more than a thousand black children showed up. You could count the number of white kids on one hand. I used the ungraded classroom model, with great success, and in the end we had a graduating class. Some of the black students made up three years of work in one year.

'I felt my life  come to an end when JFK was assassinated. I would have done anything for him.' I felt my life come to an end when JFK was assassinated. I would have done anything for him. Robert was my light at the end of the tunnel, and when he decided to run for president in 1968, I was asked to head his campaign in northern California. There was terrific excitement – and then a crashing of my dreams when he was shot. I couldn't believe it could happen again. It was terrible.

I guess it taught me how to keep going in setbacks. So much of what I did in those years – Prince Edward County, Berkeley, Boston – was because of the Kennedys. At the same time, I got to know Martin Luther King and became committed to the black cause, ready to take a major stand. King wrote the introduction to my book about Berkeley, called Now Is the Time. I took the title from his speech during the march on Washington in 1963: "Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy."

Editorial cartoon courtesy of The Boston Globe In Boston, in the early 1970s, Louise Day Hicks really raised hell with me. The Supreme Court had ordered busing on my recommendation, but Mrs. Hicks and the Boston School Committee said No. She ran for re-election every year with the motto, "You know where I stand." It was a racist stand, and I knew I had to challenge her. There's no question that I caused a lot of trouble. We paid a heavy price in Boston, but we showed that black people don't have to be in the back of the bus.

Fairness and justice – equal treatment for all – are on the top of my list. Schools can play such an important role in giving everyone an equal start. You know, little kids integrate easily. It's natural. Older kids have too many assumptions. In Berkeley we started with the elementary schools, and we had a great success.

Someone asked me how I want to be remembered. It's simple: as someone who liked kids and cared about them. Not just black kids or white kids, but kids. Each kid deserves an even chance.

Dr. Sullivan was famous in his salad days for his fast stride and booming laugh. These days, he is bed-bound, and his laugh, while hearty and frequent, no longer booms. His son Roger, who calls him every night, describes him as a champion of children, a man who is even more liberal today than ever. Neil Sullivan's optimism and idealism are unquenchable. As our visit ended, he left me with one more piece of teacherly advice: "Stay on the train as long as you can, and don't get off until you have to."

Susan Peery is associate editor of Keene State Today.