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Passings: Sen. Sullivan’s father Tom Sullivan

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Thomas C. Sullivan, the father of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, passed on Nov. 30, surrounded by loved ones. He was 83 years old.

Tom is survived by his children Frank (Barbara nee O’Rourke), Sean (Mary nee Conway), Tom, Jr. (Mary nee Frain), Dan (Julie nee Fate), Kathleen Sullivan (Blaise Dupuy) and Julie Sullivan (Bruce Shagvoc); his beloved brood of 16 aspiring grandchildren, Sully, George, Grace, James, Virginia, Joe, Margaret, Meghan, Audrey, Rose, Isabella, Ingrid, Laurel, Will, Rory, Grady and great-grandson Callahan; as well as his sisters Kaki O’Neill, Joan Livingston and Sue Jacobus. He was preceded in death by his sister Patricia Schreiner, brother Father Sean Sullivan and devoted wife of 59 years Sandra (nee Simmons). 

Tom lived a life in full — an inspiration and example for so many as a loyal son and brother, a patriotic Naval officer, a dedicated husband, a beloved father, an internationally recognized business leader, a generous philanthropist, a widely respected community leader and a man of faith.

Tom was also a man of superlatives who shined brightest in reference to others. He had a unique ability to make each person around him feel like they were the most important person in the room. Despite countless achievements, Tom never sought attention to his own good deeds or hard work. Not a fan of self-aggrandizement, he always connected his own success to the success of others. 

Tom was born in 1937 and was the youngest of six children. He received a dinner-table education in business and entrepreneurship from his father, Frank C. Sullivan, who was building the roof coatings business he founded in 1947. Tom demonstrated leadership skills at an early age. After graduating from Culver Military Academy, where he was a personnel officer and helped to counsel other students, Tom attended Miami University of Ohio where he was elected president of the freshman class and served on the student senate for four years.

Post college, Tom was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, stationed in San Diego as part of the Navy’s Pacific fleet. He deployed throughout the Pacific as a communications officer on the destroyer the U.S.S. Braine. Always a proud patriot, later in life Tom would provide strong support for West Point and its Combating Terrorism Center, one of the military’s premier training institutions.

Tom married Sandra Simmons, the love of his life, in 1960. The two had met intermittently during the many summers Sandy spent North of her native Texas with her older sister Marietta Kelly who lived in Lakewood, Ohio, down the street from young Tom. Orbiting around each other over years, the stars finally aligned one summer when Tom was on a sales itinerary that included stops in Dallas and Tulsa. Tom clearly remembered being met by a stunningly beautiful force of nature, and following dinner, he cancelled his trip to Oklahoma. And so began what would be a 59-year marriage, a blessed union that sought to enrich the lives of others, providing opportunity and hope to innumerable people.

In 1961, Tom joined his father’s business, Republic Powdered Metals, today known as RPM International Inc., as a division sales manager. The company’s sales were $2 million at that time. He was part of a team that sold shares of the company in a public offering. The proceeds were used to launch RPM’s acquisition program in 1966. Tom’s approach of maintaining an acquired company’s employee base, honoring its heritage – often built over multiple generations – and supporting its continued growth addressed the key concerns of most selling owners. As a result, RPM is now widely recognized as the best home for entrepreneurial companies in the paint and coatings industry.

In 1971, at age 34 and with six young children at home, Tom was thrust into the role as RPM’s leader after his father, who was also his boss and mentor, died suddenly. At the time, the U.S. economy began to slip into a period of stagflation. Despite these pressures, he hatched a plan to aggressively grow the $11-million company and guided RPM into international markets, instituted an annual planning process and committed to rewarding shareholders with a consistently increasing cash dividend.

He also set a high bar for business ethics and corporate governance. In the late 1970s, RPM’s board was primarily comprised of outside directors, decades before it was required by the New York Stock Exchange. By 1979, RPM revenues reached $100 million, an accomplishment that gave Tom the confidence to forge ahead with his strategy. During the ensuing 30 years, he grew the company to more than $2 billion in sales through a combination of internal growth and acquisitions, achieving record sales every year and record net income in nearly every year as well. 

Tom shared his business experience and expertise through his service on many professional and nonprofit boards, among the most prominent were Nasdaq, the Cleveland Clinic, the National Paint and Coatings Association and Culver Academies. 

Publicly, most would recognize Tom’s success as a titan of industry, but privately it was his philanthropic work that gave him sustained joy in collaboration with his most beloved Sandy. Tom would readily explain that his work in the non-profit sector was inspired by his wife and their shared faith in God. In 1991, through Tom’s signature generosity, they established The Thomas C. and Sandra S. Sullivan Family Foundation primarily as an example for their children and grandchildren of the importance of giving back to the community, finding fulfilment in assisting others and living the adage “to whom much is given, much is expected.” 

Tom and Sandy were especially motivated to promote education initiatives championing the aspirations of underprivileged youth from elementary school through college, as demonstrated by their enduring support and involvement with Metro Catholic and Urban Community School, as well as the Sullivan Scholars, a nonprofit established by their children. Other recent grant recipients through the Sullivan Family Foundation include Greater Cleveland Food Bank; Community Service Alliance, which helps people emerging out of homelessness; Boys Hope Girls Hope of Northeast Ohio; the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in support of its west side food centers; the West Side Catholic Center and Malachi House. In addition to financial assistance, Tom gave of his time, connections and expertise to help these and many other organizations flourish. He was a mentor and father figure to numerous people, many of whom his immediate family would never know.

Tom especially loved Bal Harbor, Florida, which he called a second home for more than 50 years. It was there that he would relax, play bocce and welcome family and friends.

A man of deep faith, he was inspired by St. Teresa’s counsel — what matters most in life is not great deeds, but great love. As a Catholic, he was particularly proud to receive the Charles Eisenman Award, presented by the Jewish Community Federation for embodying the tenants of his faith by embracing the faiths of all people. Tom’s most enduring trait, and perhaps the secret to his success, was his belief in and love for people. He had an incredible knack for connecting with others and trusting in their abilities. As a result, people would rise to the occasion to deliver on his positive expectations. 

Tom’s favorite adjective was “super” — a two-syllable word to describe joy and immediacy, enthusiasm and fun. This is the spirit he brought to the boardroom, family table and the widening circles of his influence, which will long be felt in the greater community. Tom Sullivan will be sorely missed, but found in every good deed done without pronouncement, and every encouragement given to help others, to lift their spirits, to be the best we can be.  

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to any one of the following institutions — Urban Community School, 4909 Lorain Ave. Cleveland, OH 44102, MCS Vision Endowment Fund, Metro Catholic School, 3555 West 54th St. Cleveland,OH 44102  or the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, 15500 S. Waterloo Rd. Cleveland, OH 44110. A celebration of his life will be held in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 17, 2021. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a private funeral mass was live streamed on Saturday Dec. 5, 2020.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Al Gross:
    I bet your dad, an East Coast hippy lawyer who lied his way into a government job in Alaska, would be bitter with pure envy after reading this well-written article. Dan’s dad lived a beautiful life and generated good will to all of those around him. One can only imagine how much of a downer Al’s dad was during his life. Al Gross’s behavior is Exhibit A of how a parent treats his children, and how the children turn out in their own despicable lives.
    Congratulations, Dan. Your dad was a great man.

    • Excellent points, Dr. The behavior of a child (Al Gross) can always be traced back to the child’s development and parenting by mother and father. Al’s parents must have been basketcases. Pot smoking abuse, permissiveness, no disciplinary interventions. Id say that Al Gross must have had a very miserable and abusive childhood. In the inapposite, Dan Sullivan was clearly raised by wonderful parents.

  • RIP Tom.

    Dan, sorry for your loss.

  • Sen. Sullivan,

    The greater a man’s life, the greater his influence in your own life, the greater the emptiness when he’s gone. I’m sorry for your great loss.

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