Why I Do What I Do

Cover front2Charlie Sullivan, Boston College ’42, passed away a few months ago at the age of 97. He was the oldest man whom I interviewed for Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room.

I’ve already posted a message in this space about how much Charlie enjoyed reading the book and recalling the old-timers who were his contemporaries from pre-World War II days.  His daughter Shauna had given it to him for a 97th birthday present. She quoted him as saying “If I had a son, I would want on just like [BC coach] Jerry York.”

That original message gave me a nice feeling – so nice that I wanted to share it with you. But it wasn’t the end of the story for me.

I recently received an email from Charlie’s daughter Shauna. She said that, during his final week when they knew the end was approaching, he admonished her, “Keep that book in the family.”

She went on to write, “… again just letting you know how much your book meant to him and how important he felt it was to keep the memories of his life with his grandchildren. Dad lived a great life and was an amazing father and grandfather. I am lucky my children were close to him and hopefully his life will influence who they become as adults…Thank you for making Dad’s humble memories immortal.”

That’s why I’m a writer. If I can change things or preserve memories in some small way that will benefit others, I’ll consider myself a success. I don’t have to write a best-seller or win a Pulitzer.  This is enough.

Professionally, I’m a disciple of William Zinsser. His book On Writing Well is as good a guide as you’ll ever find. He states, “I always write to affirm.  I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”

I realized, after getting Shauna Sullivan’s second message, that my work of bearing witness will never be complete. There’s always more to tell.

Some BC-related stories from Charlie didn’t make it into the book. One of them was about how he passed his final exams and earned his bachelor degree.  Like many member of the Greatest Generation, Charlie went off to war before completing all of his courses. He returned to campus in 1946 and met with Father Long, the priest who’d kept him in school back in 1941 by giving him a hockey scholarship.

The good father asked Charlie if he was ready to take his oral exams.  When Charlie replied in the affirmative, the priest said “Recite the Our Father in Latin.”  Charlie promptly prayed the Pater Noster. That was the final exam for all of his courses. He aced it to earn his bachelor degree.

That’s a nice little anecdote, but it’s not what I want the world to know about Charlie Sullivan. I want, instead, to be sure that everyone knows about the quietly heroic life he led after college.

I never realized, until hearing from Shauna, that Charlie’s wife had died of breast cancer at the age of 31. Charlie, then 42, was left with three daughters. They were 5, 4, and 20 months old, respectively. Charlie raised them and never remarried.

Charlie Sullivan was a true hero.  I didn’t tell his family story in the book, but I’m telling it now. I’m still bearing witness to his life. That’s my job. That’s what I do.

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