Sullivan: A legend in education passes

Norman L. Sullivan was a legend in education circles – hence the reason Bonsall Union School District’s middle school carries his name. Sullivan, who passed away Nov. 26 at the age of 86, had the distinction of being the longest serving school superintendent (32 years) in San Diego County history. But in the Bonsall and Fallbrook community, he was more than that. He was a man who was greatly admired for many reasons.

At the memorial service held in Sullivan’s honor on Nov. 30, retired Bonsall teacher Neil Gudgeon provided keen insight into why Sullivan had earned the respect of many.

“Ronald Reagan had a plaque on his desk that read, ‘There’s no limit to what an individual can accomplish if he doesn’t care who gets the credit,’” explained Gudgeon. “That was one of two main principles that [Sullivan] ran the Bonsall school district by. Mr. Sullivan always gave the credit to teachers, parents, and community members. I can never remember him taking credit for anything; he always gave credit to other people. That was why he was so well liked.”

“The teachers, parents, and students all loved him,” added Gudgeon. The second principle that Sullivan held as a priority, he explained, was “the kids always come first.”

“That always impressed me,” said Gudgeon. “When you look at what is best for the kids, it always takes the politics out of it. Mr. Sullivan felt as long as you put the kids first, you couldn’t make a bad decision.”

Gudgeon, who taught for 37 years in the Bonsall Union School District, was a close personal friend of Sullivan and described his relationship with the man, who was also his mentor.

“I met Mr. Sullivan in 1961 when I was 13 years old,” said Gudgeon. “I was playing golf with my Dad when Mr. Sullivan and a friend of his, who were ahead of us on the course, invited us to join them.”

Gudgeon said he went on to play golf with Sullivan for 10 years and was hired by him as a teacher in 1971.

“I taught under him from 1971 to 1988,” said Gudgeon. “I lost my Dad when I was young. Mr. Sullivan was not only a mentor to me; he was like a second father. I will miss him greatly.”

Norman L. Sullivan was born Jan. 7, 1926 in Benton, Wisconsin. He served in the Navy in World War II and was called back into active service during the Korean conflict.

“There are very few veterans who served in two different wars,” noted Gudgeon.

Sullivan obtained his college degree at the University of Iowa.

“In 1951, after his service in Korea, Mr. Sullivan came to California,” said Gudgeon.

In 1954, Sullivan was hired by the Vallecitos (Rainbow) School and worked there three years.

“The amazing thing was that Vallecitos was a K-8 school with only two teachers at the time,” explained Gudgeon. “One teacher taught the K-4 students and Mr. Sullivan taught grades 5 through 8. He was also the principal.” After teaching at Vallecitos, he went to the Bonsall School District in 1956.

“He accepted the position in Bonsall as both teacher and administrator for a salary of $5,208 per year,” said Gudgeon. “In my opinion, that was the best $5,208 ever invested!”

Gudgeon said Sullivan continued to teach at least one class per day until 1971.

“He liked that; he felt it kept him in touch,” he reflected.

Another trait that Sullivan had was to make a point of knowing every student’s name – in the entire K-8 school district.

“It was amazing,” said Gudgeon.

Sullivan had three biological children (Dave, Anita, and Steve) with his first wife, Loretta Mabel Bernal Sullivan. The couple divorced in 1963. Later on, Sullivan married Virginia Sullivan, who had seven children.

“So, between the two of them, they had 10 children,” said Gudgeon, adding that Sullivan always lived in the community he worked in.

“My Dad was always there for us,” said Steve Sullivan. “As I grew up, my Dad inspired me and helped me get involved in things, like baseball.” “He always took the time to come to my games; I’d see him in his suit, standing by a tree or eating a hot dog at the stand, watching me,” Steve reflected.

Steve Sullivan also served in Navy, like his father.

“I was stationed out of San Diego and deployed a lot,” he said. “It was funny because my Dad always seemed to have business to take care of in San Diego on the day my ship was due back in port. He was always there when I came in.”

When Sullivan Middle School opened in 1994, Bonsall’s governing board of trustees went through the detailed process of having it carry Norman L. Sullivan’s name.

“He was very uncomfortable with the school being named after him, but he was very proud of it,” said Gudgeon. “He told me when he saw his name on it, he thought it was ridiculous. He said ‘I don’t think I’m worthy of having a school named after me!’”

Janet Whiddon, who has served as the principal of Sullivan Middle School since 2008, said although she had never met Sullivan in person, she had spoken with him over the phone on a few occasions.

“When I attended the memorial service and learned more about him, it gave me a whole new respect for our school and the man that he was,” said Whiddon. “We are pleased to have information on him and a picture in our school office lobby. He was a pillar in the community.”

After enjoying a career in education that spanned 35 years, Sullivan retired in 1988 and enjoyed his Bonsall home until 2010 when he moved in to an assisted living facility in Vista. His wife, Virgina, preceded him in death in 1985.

The contributions that Norman L. Sullivan made to the growing Bonsall Union School District over his tenure are many, leaving a legacy that is distinct and honorable. And for many, his personality will never be forgotten.

“He had an infectious laugh and great sense of humor,” said Gudgeon. “He was a very funny guy. You always felt better for having been around him.”

6 Responses to "Sullivan: A legend in education passes"

  1. Robin Thayer   December 21, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Thanks to Debbie Ramsey for writing this great article about Mr. Sullivan. Bonsall Union School District was blessed to have this amazing man at the helm, and for so long! May his legacy be an inspiration to all.

    Reply
  2. Steven Sullivan   December 21, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Thank you for the wonderful article about my dad.

    Reply
  3. IBAM   December 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Mr. Sullivan, R.I.P. was my principal from 1972-1978. One of the most caring persons I have met, ever, in my life.

    Reply
  4. John Heckman   December 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I was honored to serve as Sullivan Middle School’s principal from 1996 until I retired in 2006. I had many conversations with Mr. Sullivan and was proud to introduce him at our annual eighth grade promotion ceremony. Personally, he was our children’s principal and superintendent. Little did I know at that time that I would one day serve as principal of the school that was named after him. Mr. Sullivan impacted thousands of children’s and educators lives in a most positive way. What an amazing man!

    Reply
  5. Bonsall Panther 1984   August 5, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    One time in my 8th Grade year I had to go to the Principals Office, I was in trouble with another classmate. Mr. Sullivan asked us questions about the incident in question. I answered Mr. Sullivan with the truth, we were in the wrong. He gave us a pardon, a pass on the minor problem. I remember it like yesterday, Mr. Sullivan the kind of person you never forget because of his grace, kindness and giving personality. Thank you Norm, I was lucky to have you at my grade school.
    I am sorry to see that people like him are not around as much anymore as in the 70’s and 80’s. The USA is not what she use to be, she is in very bad condition. We must vote out the Democrats ASAP.

    Reply
  6. Karen Fritz   December 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Neil did you ever teach at La Presa Jr High in Spring Valley, CA?

    Reply

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