It was an intra-service football game between US Navy and US Army bases in Bellingham, Wash., in late 1945. Sitting in the stands were members of the crew of a destroyer that had been escorting troops returning from the Pacific. Among them was a 20-year-old ensign from Walpole who had left Notre Dame to join the Navy.
Seeing that navy was losing, and knowing the young ensign had played football at Notre Dame, the crew members began to chant: “We want Sullivan! We want Sullivan!” When told that George Sullivan, an outstanding lineman at Notre Dame, was in the stands, the coach asked him if he wanted to play. When Sullivan agreed, the coach told him to suit up in the locker room. The Navy fans went wild when he was sent in.
I don’t remember if the Navy won that game but many years later George told me he recovered a fumble and scored. By then he was a judge, having returned to Notre Dame after the war, married his college sweetheart, with whom he had ten children, became the first athletic director at Stonehill College, then a lawyer and a state senator. In the middle of all that, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and served aboard a destroyer – in the Mediterranean, no less, he would say with a sly smile. In 1965, he was appointed to the bench at Stoughton District Court.
An all-star football player at Walpole High, George won a scholarship to Notre Dame when the storied football history at the university was becoming legendary. He described being driven to South Station at 17 by his parents and boarding a train for South Bend. Notre Dame won national championships under Coach Frank Leahy in 1943, 1946, 1947, and 1949, and George was there for three of them, playing both offense and defense. His teammates included Angelo Bertelli and Johnny Lujack.
He played in what became known as the “Game of the Century” on Nov. 9, 1946, when Army and Notre Dame, both undefeated, met at Yankee Stadium and played to a scoreless tie. Army’s two outstanding backs, Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside) and Felix “Doc” Blanchard (Mr. Inside), had a combined 79 yards against the stout Notre Dame defense.
George had a remarkable life. To be with him was to share in the joy he brought to every endeavor from family events to his participation in festivities at the Norwood Senior Center. With a boyish enthusiasm that was infectious, he would dance and sing in their productions. Although his athletic skills did not translate well into theatrics, George would try anything for a laugh.
A man of great compassion, he worked with us at Dorchester Court in the year before his retirement day. To celebrate the evemt we had a party in the judges’ lobby. We honored him by rigging a contraption to hoist his robe to the ceiling, a spectacle he thoroughly enjoyed. Like a modern Don Quixote (whom he grew to resemble in his later years) he lived by the medieval code of chivalry – bravery, courtesy, and honor.
George was not a man comfortable with superlatives. He personified humility and goodness, simple virtues not highly prized in today’s culture. “Good” is a word that fits. It is without pretension, strong and gentle, simple and straightforward. Yet its components, character, integrity and compassion, flow into every aspect of one’s life. For George, goodness was natural; it seemed almost effortless. He inspired others by his example and was happiest when the people around him were having fun. That devotion was returned. So he could remain at home in the six years he coped with Alzheimer’s before his recent death at 90 during which one of his five sons spent every night with him.
George Sullivan set a high standard without realizing it. He will be sorely missed by the many who loved him and learned from him. I believe that after he closed his eyes and drew his last breath, they opened on a familiar scene: There was the golden dome at South Bend, and standing outside waiting for him was his dear wife and his old teammates. Once again, George heard that rising chant: “We Want Sullivan! We want Sullivan!”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.