The Reverend William J. Sullivan, the former Seattle University president who is credited with boosting the academic reputation and financial stability of the school, has died.
The Rev. William J. Sullivan lived a life centered on education and spirituality, and both guided his influential 20-year presidency at Seattle University, which ran from 1976 to 1996.
The Rev. Sullivan, Seattle U.’s longest serving president, died Tuesday in Wisconsin from a combination of factors, including diabetes and a stroke he suffered in his mid-60s. He was 84.
Along with his work at the university, the Rev. Sullivan also was heavily involved in civic work. He was named “First Citizen” of Seattle in 1990 and was chairman of the organizing committee of the Goodwill Games, the international sports competition held in Seattle in 1990.
Born on Dec. 20, 1930, in Freeport, Ill., the Rev. Sullivan spent much of his childhood in Wisconsin and attended Jesuit institutions through high school.
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After he was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1961, he received a doctorate in religious studies from Yale Divinity School. He worked at Marquette University and Saint Louis University before becoming provost of Seattle University in 1975.
He took over as president in 1976 during a tumultuous time for the university, which was facing declining revenue.
The campus “was pretty much run down,” said Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, who succeeded the Rev. Sullivan as the university’s top leader. The Rev. Sullivan’s first goal, Sundborg said, was getting the university on the right foot financially.
And he succeeded, through a combination of cuts and capital campaigns that Sundborg said put the school back in the black.
The Rev. Sullivan’s legacy is also seen in the physical appearance of the university’s Capitol Hill campus. Under his presidency, Seattle University built several buildings, including the Chapel of St. Ignatius.
The additions made Seattle U. “a much more attractive place for all students in the city,” said Bob Grimm, who worked in Seattle University’s business department during the Rev. Sullivan’s presidency.
Sundborg said the purchase and transfer of the law school from University of Puget Sound in 1993 was the Rev. Sullivan’s biggest decision while at the school.
“He believed in his heart that his university deserved and needed to have a school of law,” Sundborg said.
In 1988, the university established the Sullivan Leadership Award in recognition of Rev. Sullivan, which is offered to nine incoming freshmen each year.
The Rev. Sullivan’s sister Kathleen also worked at the university, where she taught math for more than 20 years.
“From the time I was born, we’ve always been incredibly close,” she said. “I think a lot of it was that I never knew my father.” She described the Rev. Sullivan as filling the role of both brother and father after their father died before she was born.
The Rev. Sullivan traveled the world. He once climbed with a group to the base camp of Mount Everest and was part of a sailing crew that raced from the West Coast to Hawaii.
The Rev. Sullivan finished his presidency in 1996 after suffering a stroke. He stayed on the university’s faculty, acting as the school’s chancellor until 2009. He was named president emeritus that same year.
His health then forced him into retirement, and he moved to a Jesuit care facility outside Milwaukee, Wis., the state where he was raised.
Seattle University will hold a public memorial Mass for him at St. James Cathedral, at 804 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104, on June 26 at 10 a.m. Memorial contributions may be made to the Wisconsin Province Jesuits, 3400 West Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53208.