A Lasting Legacy: Remembering the Man Who Saved Seattle U

Posted by Isaac Gardon on Monday, August 3, 2015 at 12:01 PM PDT


When William J. Sullivan, S.J., became president of Seattle University in 1976, the school was in debt and half a million dollars short of the money it needed to operate as fall quarter classes started. Fr. Sullivan’s leadership would rescue the university and bring it into the 21st century.

Fr. Sullivan died on June 16, 2015, at a Jesuit care center in Milwaukee, WI. The Seattle University community continues to mourn his passing.

Fr. Sullivan led Seattle University for over three decades –– 20 years as president and 12 years as chancellor. He purchased the law school from the University of Puget Sound. He built the Chapel of St. Ignatius, the Casey Building and Bannon. He secured Seattle University’s strong financial position.

While his accomplishments are grand, Fr. Sullivan leaves a legacy that goes beyond buildings and dollar figures.

“Father Sullivan made an unparalleled impact on Seattle University,” says Seattle University President Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J. “He transformed our physical campus, strengthened our Jesuit Catholic character and ecumenical commitment and brought unprecedented recognition to our academic programs. I consider him ‘The Maker of the Modern Seattle University.’”

In 1996, Fr. Sullivan told a Seattle Times reporter, "People sometimes say about me that I'm only interested in money and buildings. I'm not interested in either one, but you can't run a university if you can't balance your budget."

Fr. Sullivan built the Seattle University we recognize today –– from its buildings, faculty and strong financial position –– but his impact stretches far outside the 50 acres between Jefferson and Madison avenues.

During his time in Seattle, Fr. Sullivan became embedded into the fabric of the city. He was named First Citizen in 1990. He was the chairman of the Seattle Organizing Committee for the Goodwill Games and served as a board member for United Way, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center and the Seattle Foundation. He didn’t just serve Seattle U –– he served the entire region.

It didn’t end there. He climbed to Mt. Everest’s base camp with alumnus Jim Whittaker, ‘52. He received a blessed scarf from the Dalai Lama (which he then personally delivered to Pope John Paul II). He presided over the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates and  sailed with Ted Turner on the billionaire’s yacht. He became close with religious, business, civic and political leaders. Yet, despite countless handshakes and meetings with society’s elite, he never lost sight of who he was –– a humble servant to God.

Memories left on Fr. Sullivan’s memorial page demonstrate a man of tremendous faith, humility and love. “He was a deeply faith-filled man of God who modeled the joy and abundance of the divine,” writes one commenter, Pat Whitney. Countless others use the words “humble servant,” “loving,” and “a man of warmth” to describe him.

Fr. Sullivan’s faith, humility and warmth led him on a mission with an unwavering commitment, bringing God’s love into the lives of Seattle University and the Pacific Northwest. You are missed, Fr. Sullivan, but you are never forgotten.