By Kathy McGee Burns
Ordinary riches can be stolen.
Real riches can not.
In your soul are infinitely precious things.
They can not be taken from you.
Riches to Kathleen Sullivan are family and friends. They are the core of her being and she holds them dear to her. Sullivan, former city representative under Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, is being honored this year at the 10th Annual Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame Dinner, for her tireless efforts to bring the Irish Memorial to Penn’s Landing.
The night we agreed to meet for this interview was one of those hot, muggy, thick July evenings. We met for dinner and started out on the terrace of the restaurant. She sat there cool, calm and composed, beautifully dressed in a white linen suit and a black ruffled blouse looking positively stunning, sophisticated and self assured. Sullivan is a true Irish beauty–burnished copper hair and flawless white skin. She is one of those women about whom the Bards wrote their lilting lyrics. And, underneath that Celtic façade there lays a dynamic woman.
There are many layers to Kathleen but the foundation is family. Her Irish roots are Wexford (via her Mom, Kathryn Hannify) and Cavan (Dad, Larry Sullivan). Larry and Kate met at ages 15 and 16. It was love at first sight and they married three years later. The Sullivans settled in Kensington, in Ascension Parish, and had nine children. Kathleen was fourth from the top. Sullivan remembers a childhood with little money, but lots of fun and nuturing. The Sullivans were competitive, loving and a true team. Everyone pitched in. Her early upbringing, she says, dealing with so many diverse personalities, taught her how to resolve conflicts.
Love of community is a second layer to Kathleen. She is proud to be from Kensington and raved about growing up there. The Sullivan kids competed citywide in basketball, soccer, swimming and other sports they learned and practiced at McVeigh Center, their home away from home. One of Sullivan’s coaches was a former Olympian, Pearl Nightingale, who took her swim team to a new level and taught lessons in leadership Sullivan says she’ll never forget. This was a lesson to Kathleen in leadership.
Kathleen Sullivan graduated from Little Flower High School where she made “All Catholic” as a basketball player and was offered a full scholarship to Penn State. At the same time she was offered a job at a prominent Philadelphia law firm for $90 a week and 21 days of vacation. To the young Kathleen Sullivan, the job presented both an exciting challenge and the opportunity for a respite from academics. Later, Kathleen went to court reporting school and worked for Judge Charles Lord for 18 years.
But she had come to regret turning down the scholarship. Her mother encouraged her to go to night school and get her degree but she hesitated. She was concerned that she would be 40 years old by the time she finished. Her mother told her: “You’re going to be 40 no matter what.”
So at the age of 39, Kathleen Sullivan graduated summa cum laude from Temple University with a degree in journalism. After graduation, a friend suggested she volunteer with one of the mayoral candidates. She chose Ed Rendell, a fortuitous choice. Impressed by her talents and energy, Rendell assured her, “I’m going to win this election and I will make you one of my city officials.” That was Kathleen Sullivan’s start in public service—the new layer of her life.
She told me that her years of working as his city representative were priceless for her. Though it was a 24/7 job, she says, he was “one of the smartest people” she’d ever met: tough, a perfectionist who expected everyone else to follow suit. She said she was touched when, at the end of his years as mayor, he told her that they were like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man,” always fighting tooth and nail about issues but he knew she had his best interests at heart.
During the Rendell administration, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick launched plans to build a memorial dedicated to the Irish immigrants who were forced to flee Ireland during “an gorta mor,” the Great Starvation. Board member and director emeritus Jim Coyne took over the job. He knew that they needed someone of importance to be an honorary chairperson.
He met with Rendell, who loved the idea—along with bringing a beautiful piece of art to the city, it would attract tourists. He immediately appointed Kathleen Sullivan to come on board as his liaison. The Glenna Goodacre sculpture on Penns Landing was uinveiled in 2003.
Jim Coyne, who nominated her as a Hall of Fame Honoree, said Sullivan was a faithful member from that day on and she now serves as vice president of the Irish Memorial. She rolled up her sleeves, helped with fund raising and was a quiet source of support with the city and state.
Joe Martz, who was city managing director during the Rendell years and an old family friend, said about Kathleen Sullivan: “She is incredibly modest, very smart, has an enormous heart and is comfortable in every situation.” Not to mention “a phenomenal” golfer, he adds.
“What makes Kathleen Sullivan special,” he wrote, “is the size of her heart, the breadth of her mind and the depth of her soul.” He said that she enriches the lives of many people and that what he knows about her family and friends, hers is a particularly “rich life.”