Walter Sullivan, 91; known as master of Cambridge politics

Walter J. Sullivan (right) was sworn in as Cambridge mayor by his brother, Edward J. Sullivan, a former mayor, in 1986.
Walter J. Sullivan (right) was sworn in as Cambridge mayor by his brother, Edward J. Sullivan, a former mayor, in 1986.Globe Staff file photo

Former Cambridge mayor Walter J. Sullivan helped unite two high schools to create Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and supported the redevelopment of Kendall Square into a 21st-century hub of innovation. But constituents from his four decades in elected office may best remember him for remembering them.

“He and Tip O’Neill represented the tail end of the generation of politicians for whom all politics was local and personal relationships were everything,” said Marty Linsky, a former state representative and longtime faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who was a Boston Globe writer in the 1970s.

Mr. Sullivan, a state representative from 1951 to 1953, Cambridge city councilor from 1960 to 1993, and three-time mayor who helped build a local political dynasty, died Monday while in hospice care in Hingham for congestive heart failure. He was 91.


Mr. Sullivan died surrounded by his wife, five children, and other family members, said his son Michael A. Sullivan, clerk of Middlesex County Superior Court and a former Cambridge mayor and city councilor. A devoted lifelong Catholic, Mr. Sullivan prayed the rosary in the moments before his death, his son said.

Mr. Sullivan was considered one of the last of the old-time Irish Catholic pols who dominated Boston-area politics in the first half of the 20th century.

“This was a master of local politics. I question whether anybody ever knew Cambridge as well as Walter Sullivan,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, 65, who was a Boston city councilor from 1972 to 1981 and has long been a close observer of local politics.

Mr. Sullivan was born on March 2, 1923, the fifth of 12 children who grew up in a four-room apartment on Surrey Street, just outside Harvard Square.

Mr. Sullivan served three years in the Army Air Corps during World War II and first ran for office in 1950, serving two years as a state representative. In 1960, he took over the city council seat his brother Edward inherited a decade earlier from their father, Michael “Mickey the Dude” Sullivan, first sworn in 24 years earlier.


As a councilor, Mr. Sullivan was three times elected mayor by his fellow councilors, serving from 1968 to 1969, 1974 to 1975, and 1986 to 1987.

As Mr. Sullivan prepared to retire in 1993, his son Michael was elected to the council seat that Sullivan family members had held since 1936 and that Michael held until 2007. He said his father taught him that he had a responsibility to make a difference. His father led by example, he said, returning every phone call he received and offering his assistance irrespective of politics.

“I think the big thing is always be available to help people, whether they’re with you or not,” he said. “The other part is to listen, and that you don’t need to be the talking head all the time. . . . People want to be heard.”

The younger Sullivan said his father had a magnetism that appealed to voters, which he often witnessed as he was growing up. “My brother and I went to everything with him, so in any picture of him in a parade or at an event, my brother and I are always with him,” he said. “He was just a lot of fun, and always there was something to do.”

A Globe Magazine profile from 1986, when Mr. Sullivan was in his last term as mayor at age 63, described him as short and bulky but surprisingly graceful, usually clad in a dark-blue fedora and a handsomely tailored three-piece suit selected by his wife at Filene’s Basement.


His schedule at the time usually began with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast and ended with the 11 p.m. news broadcast, and each hour between was packed with appointments, meetings, exercise, or social engagements, the Globe reported.

Asked why he continued to push himself so hard, why he chose this life when he could have been successful in business or finance, Mr. Sullivan told the reporter, “I just love doing politics. I do it from the heart.”

Michael A. Sullivan said his father was somehow able to maintain his hectic schedule, while still making family a priority. “He didn’t have any hobbies,” he said. “This was his life. . . . This is just what he did, and he made it work.”

Robert W. Healy, 70, who worked with Mr. Sullivan for two decades as Cambridge’s deputy city manager and then city manager, praised him as a man who had “never-ending compassion for the average citizen, especially those who may have been in need.”

Healy said that though they sometimes butted heads over procedural matters, Mr. Sullivan never held a grudge.

“He could be a challenge, but that’s the role of elected officials and appointed administrators,” Healy said. “We always got along. We may argue a point vociferously with each other in the office but come out smiling.”


In addition to his son Michael, Mr. Sullivan leaves his wife of 68 years, Marion A. (Colarusso) Sullivan; three daughters, Marion Murphy of Belmont, Mary Carven of Hanover, and Maureen Santoro of Hingham; another son, Walter Jr. of Hingham; two sisters, Kate Lynch of Arlington and Jean Savery of Weymouth; as well as 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, followed by interment at Cambridge Cemetery.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.