Richard J. Sullivan (1930 – 2012)
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: I don’t think my uncle, Dick, was ever aware of his name’s euphemistic popularity. That, or it was so distant from his lifestyle and geography as to be meaningless. It was irrelevant because no one would ever call him “Dick” except to say hello. He just did not cross paths with any lexicon except that rounded, canuck-ish variety of the Adirondacks. He was never captivated by the great metropolis to the South. For Uncle Dick, Upstate was, for the better part of his days, always enough.
My family’s history in America began with my great, great grandfather, Thomas Sullivan of County Cork, Ireland, son of Daniel and Kate. He traveled across the ocean with his Uncle, Jerry, to a New York that had yet to build anything but heavy artillery on Ellis Island. They landed directly on Manhattan, unrecorded by census men, simply given a handshake and congratulations for surviving the oceanic journey that, in 1810, was an accomplishment.
Thomas was around four years old when they landed and headed for Champion, New York, where his uncle left him with a family named the Holcombs. Jerry never returned, as he promised, so the Holcombs raised Thomas, who grew to be a dairy farmer. Thomas begat Hugh (who preferred to be called John L.); John L. begat Ezra; Ezra begat Richard, his first, and later my father, Edward. Four generations and they were all dairy farmers.
It was John L. that built that house along highway 58 and my grandfather, Ezra, was the first to live in it. Uncle Dick was born in the middle of the Great Depression, nine years before John Steinbeck would publish The Grapes of Wrath, which told the story of corporate farms’ rise and independent farmers’ decline. The Sullivans were somewhat insulated from this, managing a farm of roughly 30 cows and selling their milk to larger distributors.
My Uncle Dick was the last of the Sullivan dairy farming legacy that spanned four generations and almost 150 years, right up until he sold the last of the cows in the mid ’70s following his heart attack. No longer able to meet the relentless demands of a small dairy farm, Dick decided to start a one-man sawmill. He bought the sawmill in North Carolina, brought it back to New York on a truck, hooked the saw to the drive-shaft of a tractor and began sawing the Ash, Maple and Hemlock logs on his property as well as any that customers brought in. I still have a coffee table that was built from Sullivan Farm wood.
The sawmill life suited Dick better. He was raised a farmboy in overalls who wanted to be Steve McQueen. Yes, he woke before dawn to milk cows by hand until grandpa acquired the milking machine in 1944. Yes, he slung manure from a sleigh onto the snow-covered ground in brutal winter winds. But he also raced cars. He got a motorcycle in his teenage years, his first of many. He worked hard, but he didn’t like to. As one of his close friends said, “Dick would rather be at the fair.” My cousin, Steve, who is technically the last Sullivan man alive to work the farm, helped Uncle Dick during the dairy farm’s last days. He tells a story where Uncle Dick and he arrived back from the fair and the cows had yet to be milked. It was 2am and they milked in the dark.
Uncle Dick did not age well, by which I mean he seemed to be in all-out refusal mode to succumb to the inevitability of old age. He beat a heart-attack in his 40s and cancer in his 70s. In his late 70s, just after his bout with cancer, he decided to buy a new motorcycle. His friends begged him, with tears in their eyes, not to do something so foolish. Dick considered their loving plea and decided, “No…I’m gonna buy the motorcycle.” He had it only a short time before a neighbor found Dick pinned under it in his own driveway, unharmed, but unable to get up. That was Uncle Dick: nobody was going to tell him he was too old for a motorcycle.
Dick Sullivan lived in one house for his 81 years and nine months of life. He lived there through the end of the Great Depression, World War II, the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, The moon landing, Watergate, The Dream Team and two Winter Olympics in nearby Lake Placid (1932 and 1980. He rode the bobsled track in 1980 for a small admission). Every year of his life in that boxy, white farmhouse.
I am Uncle Dick’s namesake, born in 1980 to Ed and Karen Sullivan. By contrast to my uncle, I have already lived in 10 different houses and apartments (more if I count periods less than six months). I have never touched a cow’s teat and if you put me in a tractor, I would probably have it upside down within five minutes. I bear his name, but little of his way. It feels cliche’ to say that Dick’s kind is diminishing, but it’s true. They still make men, but they’re making fewer of them and even fewer independent farmers. He is survived by these men: Robert Sullivan, my uncle, former dairy farmer and shrewd stock trader; Edward Sullivan, my father, former dairy farmer, forester, army veteran, and motorcyclist; Patrick Sullivan, my brother, motorcyclist and chronic home-improver; Steve Sullivan, my cousin, former dairy farmer and chainsaw merchant. We will all miss you, Uncle Dick.
One thought on “Obituary: Dick Sullivan”
A few years ago, my folks decided to spend their vacation volunteering at a camp for displaced Katrina victims. Kids kept coming up to my Dad and asking what his name was. “Dick”, he’d reply, and they would giggle and run off. He was heartbroken. Not because he was repeatedly being made the brunt of penis jokes, but because vulgarity had so casually entered the lives of young children.