John Sullivan presides over the wedding of the family turtles. | Courtesy Judy Sullivan

When it comes to family reunions, the Sullivan family, originally from South Oak Park, doesn’t mess around. For 27 years, they have had big get-togethers on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In past years, the organizer, Judy Sullivan, would arrange for Chicago-centric tours. This year, they did something different and toured their old neighborhood haunts, which included the family homes at 514 S. East Ave. and 700 Gunderson. The highlight of the tour was hearing zany Sullivan stories.

Four generations of family listened with rapt attention, as the family legends were retold. There were 60 family members riding on two trolleys, which departed from Kevil’s restaurant in Forest Park. They ranged in age from 1 to 75 and came from California, North Carolina and Texas. Although many large families from South Oak Park have zany memories of growing up in chaos, the Sullivans had more than their share.

It started with their unconventional parents. John R. Sullivan was an attorney and justice of the peace. His wife, Anne, was also an attorney and a female pioneer in this profession who also found time to raise eight children. She was such a remarkable woman, the Chicago Tribune profiled her. The Trib also did a story on her neighborhood, dubbing it “Fertile Acres.”

Last Friday was a raw day for a tour, but the Sullivans headed to “Fertile Acres” and huddled in the bone-chilling rain in front of 514 S. East to tell stories and pass around black-and-white photos of their childhood. Eight pre-war and post-war children were born in the two-story stucco house. “We still can’t remember where one of the kids slept,” Mary said. 

The family shopped at Muriello’s grocery store (aka Cardinal Foods) on the southwest corner of East and Madison. That was where Debbie the youngest of the bunch, got hold of some matches. The second-grader was busy lighting and dropping matches behind the store. When a small fire started, the rest of the neighborhood headed toward the scream of the fire engines, while Judy was the only one seen walking in the opposite direction.

Their house had one TV with four or five stations. Mr. Sullivan had taped blue plastic over the screen to keep his kids from going blind. They had a party-line telephone that the Sullivans were careful not to tie up. The house was so cramped, they were forced to put the Christmas tree in the playpen.

This is why they moved to large house at 700 Gunderson. They lived across the alley from the O’Brien family, who had 10 boys, which won the O’Briens a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. The Gallaghers nearby had 14 children. The Sullivans only had eight but there were 12 people at the dinner table each night.

That’s because their grandmother, Mary, lived with them, as well as a formerly homeless man, George “Frenchy” Gubba, who bunked in the basement. Frenchy became part of the family, doing odd jobs around the house and going with the Sullivans on vacation to Lake Delavan. Frenchy became the family handyman because there was nothing handy about Mr. Sullivan.

The attorney didn’t know how to fix things, but he did know how to eliminate clutter. If any of the kids left their belongings where they weren’t supposed to be, dad tossed them out the front door. This was particularly embarrassing, when a “sophisticated” student named Sue came for Sunday breakfast. When she was getting ready to leave, she found her shoes and coat lying in the snow in the front yard.

Both parents did some of their legal work in the house. Anne once had some clients in the living room, when a mouse scampered out and died right in the middle of the room. in The living room was also where father John performed wedding ceremonies. One of the boys would dress up to be the “best man” while a Sullivan girl pretended to be the “maid of honor.” Judy played the one song she knew on piano: “Moon River.” When one of the girls dressed up her pet turtles: one in a tie, the other wearing a dress, dad performed the ceremony, asking Mr. and Mrs. Turtle to exchange vows. The family also briefly had a baby alligator, which survived one walk around the block in Chicago’s frigid weather.

Survival was the mode for most Sullivan kids because resources were tight. They wore hand-me-downs, which didn’t always match their gender. Larry once had to wear his sister’s swimsuit. He also played hockey wearing white figure skates — until his mother dyed them black. Debbie recalled wearing only boy’s clothes.

She asked her dad, “Am I a little boy or a little girl?” He responded with a question, “What do you want to be?” Debbie was always asking, “Could today be my birthday?” As it turned out, her family celebrated her birthday on the wrong date. She didn’t learn the true date until she turned 18 and needed her birth certificate. The Sullivans didn’t get birthday presents but received a box of Fannie Mae chocolates, which they had to share with their siblings. 

They also had to share a photograph when the time came to bring a baby picture to school. Mom, stating that she didn’t have time to take pictures, had each of them bring the baby picture of Jim to school. “All my babies look alike,” she insisted.

Dad couldn’t do house projects but he knew how to organize them. He assembled 30 kids, most of them under 12, to paint the house while Mr. Sullivan sat in a lawn chair supervising the project. Someone later spied him dabbing some paint on his clothes, so he would like he was helping. When he wanted kids to “police the area” picking up litter, he would first sprinkle coins on the grass.

He had the peculiar habit of listening to self-help tapes — before he went to sleep and in the morning. The kids would hear messages like, “You are in complete control. Know that you’re confident every morning,” recited in calm, measured tones. 

Like other South Oak Park families in “Fertile Acres,” the Sullivans had an army of friends to play with. In fact, they would organize games of war, involving 40-50 kids. The boys played soldier, while the girls served as nurses, tending their wounds. They gave boys pieces of candy for “medicine” and administered the last rites, using Necco Wafers for Communion. 

The siblings not only shared their stories, they passed out props: Fannie Mae chocolates, Necco Wafers and Twizzlers, which they used to use as straws. The younger generations chomped on the candy while listening to story after story of what it was like to grow up in the boisterous Sullivan family of “Fertile Acres.” There were still so many places to see: the Oak Park Conservatory, Ascension School and the Maze Branch Library. 

Then it was back to Kevil’s for drinks and more stories, surrounded by black-and-white photos of friends from their past. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.