Bob Sullivan liked talking to strangers — on the Green Line at 10 p.m. returning from a Grant Park concert, in the passport line at the Post Office. He seemed determined to prove to them, and reinforce for himself, that “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he would have cringed at that phrasing. He disliked clichés and was suspicious of shallow sentimentality. He hated the greeting, “How are you?” because he considered it a meaningless formality, not to mention insincere. If you wanted to know how Bob was, his response was some variation of “How much time do you have?” He placed great value on authenticity.
A free and critical thinker, a person of depth and substance, he didn’t talk so much as engage. He engaged strangers because he didn’t want people to merely glance off one another and remain anonymous. Bob Sullivan was the antidote to anonymity.
He ran out of time and sanguinity some while ago, but he died recently, on July 27 in Borrego Springs, California, where he and Barbara moved last October to be close to their daughter Jill. He struggled with severe depression, which caught up to him several times, and several times he rallied. But it finally did him in, dementia sealing the deal.
Nonetheless, he had a noble soul (sorry about the cliché, Bob), and his spirit persisted. He was a fan of a long-ago and little-remembered New York Sun columnist named Don Marquis, who penned lines that Bob liked to quote, such as, “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things” and “Expression is the need of my soul” and especially, “My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name.” Bob Sullivan was a truth-seeker and word-lover who refused to go through life un-tormented.
Fortunately for those of us at the Forest Park Review and Wednesday Journal, his path passed through our orbit some 25 years ago, and he made regular contributions, including the weekly “From These Pages” column in the Review, which offered his fellow Forest Parkers historical summaries from their hometown paper, peppered with pithy wisdom. He wrote as he spoke, at the end of a process of internal wrestling and intentional deliberation. When he wrote or spoke, it was always worth paying attention. He was a master letter-writer.
A great interrupter, he engaged staff members in discourse as irresistible as it was inconvenient. If you were lucky, a torn section of newsprint found its way to your desk with Bob’s familiar scrawl adorning the margins and between the lines. You felt honored that he considered your writing worth commenting on. One day he left a sticky note on my desk pointing out the similarity between the words “columnist” and “calumnist” (one who commits slander) and assured me he identified me with the former, whereas Rush Limbaugh personified the latter. Another time he remarked on the similarity between the asterisk and a certain bodily orifice, and said that, given his prickly personality, all of Barry Bonds’ steroid-enhanced baseball records should be followed by an ass-terisk.
He had the unique distinction of being the only Forest Park Review writer ever run over by a float — our float in fact, which occurred one year during Forest Park’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. And the even more unique distinction of surviving and not being much the worse for the encounter. We’re still not sure how it all transpired, but he was regarded with considerable awe around here for a while.
Bob read as deliberately as he wrote, interjecting comments, questions, and quotes from favorite writers, like Marquis and E.B. White. All of the books in his collection were liberally annotated, with myriad pieces of paper, like tiny periscopes, peering above the pages. Jill said she’s keeping them. If someone someday starts a Readers’ Museum, his books should be included because he considered the printed word an interactive, even hyperactive, medium.
We became friends, of course. He turned me on to E.B. White’s “One Man’s Meat” columns from the New Yorker, and John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams’ final game, probably the greatest piece of sports writing ever — certainly the best by a non-sportswriter. Bob would call when Milt Rosenberg had a particularly intriguing guest on his WGN radio talk show or if there was something watch-worthy on TV, usually involving the awesomeness of the universe. He dragged me out to Glendora Ballroom on South Harlem Avenue one memorable Sunday afternoon to watch decked-out couples trip the light fantastic, accompanied by big band music. He was a fan of Dick Buckley’s jazz programs, broadcast over various bandwidths, including the Oak Park Arms.
Bob worked in advertising, which paid the bills, but he set his sights higher. He was a fine writer though it was a labor of love — equal parts labor and love.
In 2007, one of Wednesday Journal’s mainstays, Dennis Gordon, died of a heart attack on his way to work. Because they were close friends, Bob wrote the obituary, which now seems to apply to Bob himself.
“How do you sum him up? You don’t. You go to notes or scraps like, ‘He had a keen wisdom and quick wit’ … ‘He was right with himself, comically and cosmically’ … ‘If you were properly attuned, he made you like yourself for being with him.’ It seems all we’re left with is a wistful, ‘We hardly knew ye.’ But he’d never let us end on a downer. He touched happiness many times; he certainly touched us. He still does, and the next time we think of him, he’ll touch us again. Pax.”
Expression was the need of his soul. All his days, his heart followed something he could not name, though he kept trying.
Go gentle into that good night, good friend.