Canton’s Dr. Sullivan left powerful legacy of selfless service

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They started trickling in to the Dockray and Thomas Funeral Home around 1:30 p.m. and the last visitor didn’t leave until 30 minutes after the wake had ended. Hundreds of them came, from near and far and from all walks of life, to pay their respects to the late Dr. William “Bill” Sullivan of Canton — a true “man for others” if there ever was one.

“At the wake there were judges, there were surgeons,” recalled Bill Sullivan Jr., himself a judge and the eldest of Sullivan’s three children. “There were guys from garages coming in with work shirts, people who had been homeless, people who had cleaned his office. It was truly humbling.”

Dr. Bill Sullivan

Dr. Bill Sullivan

Sullivan, a longtime resident and a respected orthopedic surgeon, died on March 31 at the Hellenic Nursing Home due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Those closest to him acknowledged how difficult it was to watch him deteriorate both mentally and physically over the last few years of his life, yet they choose instead to remember the Sullivan they had always known — the Harvard-trained doctor with the razor-sharp intellect who was so full of life and always on the go, arguably even more so in his retirement years.

Most of all, they remember his extraordinary lifelong passion for helping and serving others — a passion that was nurtured by his Jesuit education at Boston College High School and Boston College and one that defined his life for the next six-plus decades. As his longtime close friend Paul Schneiders recently observed, “I’ll never, ever meet anybody who was more charitable than Bill Sullivan was. He just had this conviction that every day he had to do something to help people.”

Outside of Sullivan’s wife, Susan, who Bill Jr. described as his longtime “partner in charity,” Schneiders is probably the most reliable witness to Sullivan’s track record of service, and that list of charitable acts, both large and small, is miles long, he said.

Neighbors and friends since the 1960s, Sullivan and Schneiders vacationed together with their wives every summer, and Sullivan served as Schneiders’ campaign manager when he ran successfully for a selectman’s seat and later for state representative.

Even as Sullivan ran a solo orthopedic practice in Stoughton for many years — while also serving as chief of orthopedics at Cardinal Cushing Hospital — Schneiders said he watched with awe and admiration as his friend devoted countless hours to volunteer work: stocking shelves at the Catholic Charities food pantry in Brockton, traveling to rural sections of Haiti to provide medical care, and opening his home to unwed expectant mothers. He said there was even one time, when Schneiders was campaigning for selectman, when one of the mothers went missing from his home and Sullivan called him up and told him, “We have to go find a missing girl.”

Bill Sullivan and Paul Schneiders

Bill Sullivan and Paul Schneiders

“That was just the type of thing that you’d always get involved in with Bill,” Schneiders recalled with a chuckle.

And he rattled off a number of other instances where Sullivan stepped in to help someone in need, often in the spur of the moment, including accident victims and an injured vacationer on a cruise ship. “It got to be a joke that wherever you went Bill would find someone in need of help,” he said. “And there were at least a dozen episodes of impromptu care like this in my 50-plus years of knowing him.”

When Sullivan did finally retire from medical practice, Schneiders said he arguably became even busier as he made charity work his full-time job. It was at this point that he became deeply involved with the St. Vincent De Paul Society, whose primary mission is to assist those who are needy and suffering.

Don Ward, another longtime friend of Sullivan’s and a fellow active Vincentian, marveled at his dedication and the unassuming nature with which he went about his charity work. The two of them would often visit needy families together, and Sullivan, he said, was always very comforting and never pretentious.

“If you knew him, you may not even know he was a doctor because that’s just the way he was,” said Ward. “He was just a great guy, and everything with him was under the radar.”

Incidentally, both Sullivan and Ward served stints as the president of the local St. John the Evangelist chapter of St. Vincent De Paul, and Sullivan would later serve as president of the entire south district. Both men were also recognized with BC High’s highest honor, the St. Ignatius Award, which is given to alumni who have “exemplified the ideals of the school through high moral character and selfless service to the community.”

Ward said Sullivan relished the chance to help a person in need, and he “never said no to anyone.”

“He was always there for people,” said Ward. “And the big thing about Bill is if you came to him and you had a need and he himself could not fulfill that need, he would find a way to get you what you were looking for. He also followed up, and you became his friend. And I think this carried through his whole life.”

Bill and Sue Sullivan

Bill and Sue Sullivan

According to Bill Jr., his father never really talked much about his charitable activities; rather, he “led by example” and was a “very strong man of faith.”

“He wouldn’t really tell you,” said Bill Jr. “He would go out on a regular basis and stock shelves at the food pantry. He would meet people and he wouldn’t talk about it with them either, but he did recruit some of his friends to do it.”

At the same time, Bill said that his father was a “big personality” and a very dedicated and loving dad to him and his two siblings, Julie and Gavin. He was also a big BC football and hockey fan and season ticket holder and would often take his children and later his grandchildren to the games.

“He worked a lot of hours, especially when he was running his solo practice,” Bill Jr. said. “But you always felt he had the time for you, and when he was there, he was there.”

He was also a loyal and loving husband to Sue, whom he had met in high school while the two were growing up in Auburndale. Sue herself has a remarkable track record of selfless service and she always supported her husband’s efforts “100 percent,” according to Bill Jr.

Bill said he would also come to appreciate later in life how respected his father was as a surgeon, adding that he was something of a trailblazer at the time for being an Irish Catholic Boston College alum going to Harvard Medical School.

Schneiders also noted how highly esteemed Sullivan was as a doctor and personally knew of an instance when Sullivan, after being contacted by one of President Jimmy Carter’s advisors for a second opinion on a knee injury, hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C. to confront the president’s physician — who had refused to cooperate — just outside the Oval Office in the White House.

Schneiders said that Sullivan was a “very conservative” doctor and did not think the patient needed surgery, and Sullivan proved to be correct. “Seriously,” said Schneiders, “how many busy doctors would stop what they’re doing and get on a plane to confront the president’s doctor in the White House? But that just shows the kind of person he was — he was generous, but he was also tough and courageous.”

Bill Sullivan and his son Bill Jr.

Bill Sullivan and his son Bill Jr.

But what made Sullivan so remarkable in Schneiders’ eyes, and also in the eyes of his many admirers and friends, was how modest and unassuming he was about his numerous talents and virtues.

“In the 15 years after he retired, I would sometimes go on his runs with him,” said Schneiders, “and he would go into these really poor sections of Brockton and Stoughton to find out what the families needed. They were the most down to earth people, and Bill just talked to them on their own level. He wasn’t trying to be one of them; he was one of them.”

Bill Jr. said his father was equally modest and down to earth in his work environment, recalling trips to the hospital where his father would introduce him to a cardiac surgeon, followed by an electrician in the maintenance department and someone working in the cafeteria.

“He knew them all as well as their families,” he said, “and all those people were there [at the wake] on Sunday.”

“Bill was just the complete package,” added Schneiders. “He could be very serious about things, particularly about his religion, and he was the best Catholic I ever knew in the best sense of the word. Yet he could also be very, very funny and had a tremendous sense of humor.”

“Bill was very smart, but very down to earth,” he added. “He was just the perfect person to know.”

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