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William Sullivan; founded Worcester insurance agency

WILLIAM F. SULLIVAN

WILLIAM F. SULLIVAN

In 1957, William F. Sullivan borrowed $2,000 to start his first business, and he became president and chief executive of the William F. Sullivan Insurance Agency of Worcester.

“He didn’t want to work for corporate America back in the ’50s,” said his son William of Worcester, who added that his father wanted to answer only to his clients. “There were some lean years, but he always figured it out. He always did things the right way.”

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Using a business strategy of surrounding himself with good people, Mr. Sullivan listened to colleagues before making decisions.

“He felt that you need to let people share in your prosperity,” said another son, Peter of Princeton.

Mr. Sullivan, whose business grew into the Sullivan Group of Worcester, one of the state’s largest insurance companies, died of prostate cancer Nov. 4 in the Rose Monahan Hospice Home in Worcester. He was 85 and lived in Worcester.

“He always looked to try to bring the best out of you, no matter who you were,” Peter said. “He mentored many people young and old.”

In addition to building his business and becoming chairman and founder of the Sullivan Group, Mr. Sullivan was active in the Worcester region’s economic affairs. He was a member of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority and once led Worcester’s chamber of commerce and the Worcester Economic Club.

From 1978 to 2000, he also was an underwriting member of Lloyd’s of London, for which he was a licensed insurance adviser.

Mr. Sullivan was a member of the Worcester Club, a private social club founded in 1888, and was active in politics. He campaigned for elected officials such as Endicott Peabody and Michael S. Dukakis, both of whom served as Massachusetts governor, and for Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

“Bill Sullivan was an institution in Worcester,” Kerry said in a statement. “He was a legend throughout Central Massachusetts. Bill was one of the people who taught me that it was about more than issues — it was about people. He was one of the steady hands who guided and mentored me and I wasn’t alone. There was a whole generation or two mentored by Bill on our visits to Worcester.”

Mr. Sullivan “was concerned about the less fortunate and those who didn’t have health insurance,” said Peter, who added that his father contributed to many charities.

Born in Worcester, Mr. Sullivan graduated from Classical High School in Worcester in 1944 before enlisting in the Navy. He was stationed in Boston for two years and stayed in the Navy Reserve while attending Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in history.

He served as a member of the Class of 1950 executive committee and twice was the head class agent for the Alumni Fund.

Mr. Sullivan met Elizabeth Collins on a blind double-date, with each dating someone else. She didn’t care for her date, and when she began talking with Mr. Sullivan, she realized, “This is the guy,” their son William said. “She didn’t want the other guy behind door number one.”

Mrs. Sullivan died in February. Because of a degenerative disease that had afflicted her for 30 years, she used a wheelchair. But even while Mr. Sullivan was being treated for cancer, he “lived to make sure” she was taken care of, Peter said.

During 57 years of marriage, the Sullivans enjoyed fine dining so much that in 1969, Mr. Sullivan opened The Cheese Shop, which sells fine cheeses and wine. In addition to the original shop in Worcester, he opened five more stores with various partners.

That business venture led to extensive travels in countries such as England, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. The Sullivans also had a summer home in Harwich Port.

Along with his insurance business, Mr. Sullivan was chairman of Sullivan Travel Service and previously owned McEvoy Travel Bureau and Diners Fugazi Travel Agency.

Dedicated to exercising regularly, Mr. Sullivan was a runner and regularly played squash, tennis, and golf. He served as president of the YMCA of Central Massachusetts from 1986 to 1988, and was presented with the Chairman’s Award in 1992. He also was a member of the Tatnuck Country Club in Worcester and the Worcester Tennis Club. In Harwich Port, he belonged to the Stone Horse Yacht Club and the tennis association.

Among the other organizations and panels to which he donated time were the airport commission in Worcester, New England Baptist Hospital’s ­development committee, and
UMass Memorial Health Care’s ventures board. He was a member of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and was elected a life member of the Boston Athenaeum in 1982.

Mr. Sullivan was a member of Christ the King Church in Worcester, was a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, and was long involved with the campus ministry at Assumption College in Worcester.

A service has been held for Mr. Sullivan, who in addition to his sons Peter and William leaves a daughter, Betsy Latham of Groveland; and six grandchildren.

“He never steered you in one direction; he gave you many paths to look at,” said his son William. “He never gave knee-jerk reactions. I always thought he was very fair in all aspects of his life.”

Jeffrey Fish can be reached at jfish@globe.com.

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