The Maker of the Modern Seattle University

Remembering Father William J. Sullivan

Written by Annie Beckmann and Mike Thee
Photography by SU archives/magazine staff
September 15, 2015
It is strange to think of him now as a relative unknown. That’s precisely what William J. Sullivan, S.J., was, at least locally, when he arrived from the Midwest to become Seattle University’s provost in 1975.

Yes, he carried the distinction of being the first Catholic priest to earn a doctorate in religious studies from Yale University. And yes, by the time he arrived at SU he had already established himself as a champion for ecumenism as dean of the School of Divinity at St. Louis University. And yet none of this foretold the gargantuan impact he would make in the years to come on Seattle University and the region.

The university and community mourn the passing of Professor Emeritus Father Sullivan, who died June 16, 2015, at the Jesuit care center near Milwaukee, WI. He was 84.

Taking the reins as SU’s president in 1976, Father Sullivan’s first order of business was to restore Seattle University’s financial stability. Over his two decades as president, he not only placed the university on solid ground—he changed its collective psyche and energized the university community with a sense of pride and purpose.

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

During Fr. Sullivan’s 20 years at the helm, Seattle University’s endowment grew 20-fold from $4.5 million to $90 million and enrollment increased 70 percent. He launched the university’s first-ever capital campaign in 1982, which raised $26 million; a second campaign brought in $67 million.


Former SU Provost John Eshelman says all the legends about Fr. Sullivan are true.

“He really did turn the university around financially, starting with balancing the budget for the first time in several years and he did it in his first year as president,” Eshelman says.

In a 2009 interview, former SU trustee James Pigott remembered touring the campus with Fr. Sullivan in the early 1980s with other members of the university’s capital campaign committee. Standing in the basement of the Garrand Building—the institution’s birthplace—Pigott and others were struck by its disrepair. “It looked like the ceiling was about to cave in any minute.” As if it needed to be stated, their tour guide said, “We’ve gotta’ fix the physical structure of this university.”

Father Sullivan set about doing just that. Under his leadership, SU’s campus was rebuilt and revitalized. “In many ways, the campus still reflects his aesthetic,” says Eshelman.

Among other additions to the university’s landscape, he oversaw construction of the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Dedicated in 1997, the chapel is internationally regarded as both an architectural gem and an intimate space for worship and reflection. In 1995, Fr. Sullivan founded the Seattle University School of Law, which moved into its new home on the SU campus—Sullivan Hall—in 1999.

Law School Dean Annette Clark, ’89, says Fr. Sullivan holds a special place in the history of the law school and in the hearts of those who have taught, learned and worked there.

“Father Sullivan knew the importance of law in society and in the pursuit of social justice and he saw having a law school as vitally important to the mission of Seattle University,” says Clark. “His energy and initiative were the driving force behind the law school’s move from the auspices of the University of Puget Sound to our permanent home at Seattle University. So, in a very real sense, every client our students and alumni assist and every wrong they help put right is a tribute to Fr. Sullivan and his visionary leadership.”

As much a builder of programs as physical structures, Fr. Sullivan also helped shape Jesuit higher education for his times. He founded the School of Theology and Ministry in 1996, and further enriched the university’s intellectual climate by initiating among other programs the Sue Naef Scholars, the Bannan Scholars and, of course, his namesake: the Sullivan Scholars.

College of Nursing instructor Lindsay Leeder, ’02 MSN, ARNP, entered SU as a Sullivan Scholar in 1997 and had an opportunity to know Fr. Sullivan when she was a student. She later became director of the Sullivan Leadership Program.

“Fr. Sullivan’s spirit is still very much alive in the Sullivan Scholar community and we are all deeply grateful for his grace and wisdom,” says Leeder. “He understood that leadership born from authenticity and rooted in compassion is contagious. He was such a genuine man with a great sense of humor.”

Donna Whitford, ’04 MNL, Fr. Sullivan’s assistant for 12 years after he stepped down as president and became university chancellor, says he had an ability to laugh at himself, too. He liked to describe the time he officiated at a wedding and fell flat on his back during the ceremony.

Whitford fondly recalls how Fr. Sullivan took a real interest in family life and had an incredible heart. When one of her daughters struggled to find a date for the junior prom, he called Paul Fitterer, S.J., then at Seattle Preparatory School, to see if there were any stray boys who might fit the bill. That didn’t quite work out, but Whitford never forgot his effort.

Fr. Sullivan was also known as an outdoorsman and as someone who loved sports.

Jim Whittaker, ’52, a legend among mountaineers as the first American to summit Mt. Everest, made several climbs with Fr. Sullivan. They reached 21,300 feet and Fr. Sullivan said Mass at base camp on the Chinese side of the mountain at 20,050 feet.

“Father Bill was a delightful companion and with the interpreters became a friend to the whole team. He gave a Mass there and commented, ‘I think it is probably the ‘highest’ Mass ever given,’” recalls Whittaker. “Who knows, that Mass might be the reason we made the climb and no one was killed or even got frostbite.”

Also on that Mt. Everest climb was Bob Walsh, a key figure in the Seattle sports scene as well as in international diplomatic efforts. Along with former media mogul Ted Turner, Walsh spearheaded the 1990 Goodwill Games and they asked Fr. Sullivan to chair the Seattle organizing committee for the summer-long games that involved 54 countries and 23 sports, arts and cultural events. President Jimmy Carter credited the1990 Goodwill Games for its significant role in ending the Cold War.     

Fr. Sullivan also loved participating in sailing races, frequently with Ned Flohr, ’62. Flohr has a photo of them sailing near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. They were en route to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in the 1988 Pacific Cup Race, which took their crew of eight 10 days in Flohr’s 46-foot sailboat.

“He was a good crew and sailor on my sailboat,” Flohr remembers. “We were catching fish all the way over and he loved eating them. Tuna, mahi, one ohno—he liked them all.”

Was there anything Fr. Sullivan didn’t like? Whitford says he loved the arts, particularly theater, opera, ballet and movies.

Shortly after Emeritus Psychology Professor Steen Halling arrived in 1976, he recollects seeing the movie Rocky with Fr. Sullivan and Judy Sharpe, who was residence hall director at the time. But the movie wasn’t as memorable as the conversation on the way there, he says.

“Along the way, we had a lively discussion about mythology and the extent to which animals can represent the human psyche,” says Halling. “I was delighted to find that the university president was not just a talented administrator but was also a scholar deeply interested in understanding the human condition.”

Whitford, who today is director of development for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Seattle/King County, says she learned much about fund raising from Fr. Sullivan.

“He used to call it friend raising, not fund raising. He had a way of taking complex things and simplifying them like that,” Whitford says. A highly esteemed and sought-out leader beyond SU’s campus, Fr. Sullivan was actively involved in the community and widely honored for his contributions to the region.

Reflecting in 2009 on Fr. Sullivan’s outsize impact, longtime Associate Professor of History Dave Madsen, wrote: “Outside the downtown Nordstrom’s store you can see the footprints of Seattle’s civic leaders in the 1990s. Prominent among them are Father Sullivan’s. He was a Jesuit who earned an honored place in the Northwest for himself and the university he led.”

In 1981, Fr. Sullivan was honored with the distinguished Brotherhood Award presented by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and in June 1983, he received the Torch of Liberty Award by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. In October 1986, Fr. Sullivan was named one of the 100 Most Effective Chief Executive Officers in higher education in a study funded by the Exxon Education Foundation. The Seattle Times named him one of the 20 most powerful community leaders in Seattle in 1987. In October 1992, he received the Alumni Merit Award from the College of Philosophy and Letters at Saint Louis University. Fr. Sullivan received the “Archbishop Award” from the Fulcrum Foundation and was inducted into the Junior Achievement Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame in 2008, honoring his business, civic and educational achievements.

A native of Prairie du Chien, Wis., Fr. Sullivan entered the Society of Jesus in 1948. He graduated summa cum laude from Saint Louis University and completed a master’s degree in philosophy. He pursued his theological studies in France and Germany and was ordained in France in 1961. A decade later he earned his PhD from Yale. A graduate of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard Business School, Fr. Sullivan held faculty positions at Marquette University and Saint Louis University. From 1971 until 1975 he was the dean of Saint Louis University’s School of Divinity.

After stepping down as Seattle University president in 1996 and serving as university chancellor, he later became president emeritus before returning to his home province in Wisconsin in 2009.

Gifts in Memory

Gifts in memory of Seattle University President Emeritus William J. Sullivan, S.J., may be directed to the Sullivan Leadership Endowment, which supports full scholarships promoting the personal and professional growth of undergraduate students. Make a gift here.
William J. Sullivan, S.J., left a lasting impact not only on the university but also in the community, region wide and beyond.