Legendary Cambridge politician Walter Sullivan dies at 91
Described as one of the “greatest from the greatest generation,” a stalwart of Cambridge politics, and a friend to nearly everyone he met, former Cambridge Mayor Walter J. Sullivan died Monday, Aug. 4, at the age of 91.
To many, Sullivan represented a brand of politics now seen as a rarity, putting constituent services above ideology.
“He was legendary,” said Cambridge attorney James Rafferty. “He absolutely personified Cambridge politics for decades.”
The son of another former Cambridge mayor, Michael “Mickey the Dude” Sullivan, Walter Sullivan ascended to the Cambridge council in 1959. It was the same year his brother, Edward J. Sullivan, retired to serve as Clerk of Court for Middlesex County, a post he held until 2007. Walter Sullivan stayed on the council until 1993, serving nearly five decades.
The two brothers grew up in a four-room flat, shared with 10 other siblings, on Surry Street during the Great Depression, said Michael A. Sullivan Jr., one of Walter Sullivan’s twin sons. Walter Sullivan was at his father’s side during his first election campaign in 1936, Michael Sullivan Jr. said, and made his entire life about improving the lives of Cantabrigians.
“He learned a great deal about how to treat people and how to care for people. He took that to another level when he began to serve,” said Michael Sullivan Jr., who is also a well-known local politician, having served as a Cambridge city councilor and mayor and Clerk of Courts for Middlesex County. He is also currently running for Middlesex District Attorney.
The top vote-getter in many elections, Walter Sullivan appealed to the working-class residents of the city, according to Cambridge Mayor David Maher. Maher’s father served with Walter Sullivan on the council, he said.
“He was always willing to quietly help people, and that is a legacy that will live on for many, many years,” Maher said.
Stories of Walter Sullivan’s altruism abound. Michael Sullivan Jr. remembers being approached by a psychiatric nurse who needed a loan to go to school. Although his father didn’t know her “from a hole in the wall,” he walked into a bank and vouched for her creditworthiness.
Cambridge resident Glenn Koocher, who served on the School Committee while Walter Sullivan was mayor, remembers being invited to a dinner at then-President of Harvard Derek Bok’s house. Instead of sitting at the head of the table near Bok, Koocher said Walter Sullivan sat near the athletic director and spent the evening securing football tickets for his constituents.
Rafferty remembers Walter Sullivan allowing people down on their luck to stay in his basement while they looked for housing.
“He was one of the most personally charitable guys I ever met,” Rafferty said, adding he would often help people get jobs in the city. “If you get a guy on the payroll of DPW for a few weeks, it means saving them the dignity of not having to go on welfare.”
A snappy dresser, Walter Sullivan was known for attending up to a half-dozen funerals or wakes every week, Rafferty said. For other politicians, it might appear to be a tacky ploy, but for Walter Sullivan, it was out of genuine respect, Koocher said.
Part of Cambridge’s “old guard” of Independents, or moderate conservatives, Walter Sullivan treated his friends and his adversaries equally, Koocher said.
“He told me to help your friends and help your adversaries because when someone is in need and you help them, they will never forget you,” Koocher said.
Although they sat on different sides of the political aisle, Koocher said Walter Sullivan mentored him, taking him under his wing and encouraging his political career.
“He never let (politics) get in the way of civility or a good professional relationship,” Koocher said.
City Council meetings were more vociferous than they are today, said former councilor, School Committee member and state Rep. Alice Wolf, with political lines more sharply drawn between the Independents and Cambridge Civic Association. That didn’t keep Walter Sullivan from inviting his fellow pols out to eat after meetings during his three terms as mayor.
“There were a lot of things we didn’t agree about … the most notable of which was rent control, which he opposed and I supported,” Wolf said. “Whatever differences there were, we would all go out for coffee and be friends. After those meetings, people who had fought and voted on different sides, we would still try to get along. There was a certain kind of camaraderie.”
His private life was almost completely integrated with his public persona, said Michael Sullivan Jr. When he wasn’t doing politics, he spent time with his three daughters and two sons, or taking walks through town.
Walter Sullivan married his high school sweetheart, Marion Colarusso, in 1946, after returning from service in the South Pacific with the Army Air Force. They celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary a week before he passed away, said Michael Sullivan Jr.
“They dated for seven years prior to getting married, so really they were together for 75 years,” Michael Sullivan Jr. said. “My mom was everything to him.”
Cambridge’s water treatment facility now bears Walter Sullivan’s name, a tribute to his life of service to the community, said Maher, who put in the council order to name it after him.
“He did so much for so many people who lived and worked in Cambridge,” Maher said. “He was someone who had the highest moral character and somebody who really, truly, loved Cambridge.”
“He was one of the absolute finest human beings you could ever see,” Koocher said. “They don’t make him like him anymore.”
He will lie in state at the facility from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 8. The funeral is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 9, at a time to be determined at St. Paul Parish, 29 Mt. Auburn St. in Harvard Square.