Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

Paul Sullivan died in Vietnam 50 years ago. And his family has kept his memory alive ever since

Eleanor Sullivan Donato and Tom Sullivan flipped through a photo album and scrap book while they talked about their brother, Paul J. Sullivan, who was killed in Vietnam 50 years ago. The family will award the 50th scholarship in his memory.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Eleanor Sullivan Donato and Tom Sullivan flipped through a photo album and scrap book while they talked about their brother, Paul J. Sullivan, who was killed in Vietnam 50 years ago. The family will award the 50th scholarship in his memory.

WATERTOWN — Handsome, smiling and ramrod straight, Paul Sullivan — dressed in crisp military uniform — stares out from a framed photo that freezes him in time.

He’s 24 years old. He’s newly married. His life stretches toward a bright horizon. He’s forever young.

It’s a beloved image enshrined on the living room wall in the home here of his sister that also holds the battlefield medals the Army Ranger earned fighting and dying for his country.

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That was 50 summers ago. A half of a century. Enough time for a freckle-faced boy to mature into the gray hair that accompanies middle age.

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It was the summer of 1968, the summer of a national nervous breakdown, one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history that held echoes of political assassinations, urban riots, and a war in a faraway place in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, where Lieutenant Paul J. Sullivan was settling into life under the canopy of the jungle.

“I’m real glad and proud to be over here,’’ he wrote to his family on July 8, 1968, one month and one day before he was killed. “So don’t even agree with anyone when they say it is too bad that I had to come over here.’’

The story of Paul Sullivan’s brief, shining lifetime is kept in the hearts of his large family and of those whose lives he touched. And it is retold and remembered each year – this month for the 50th time – during the award ceremony for the scholarship that bears his name.

“He was funny, loving, a wonderful husband,’’ his widow, Marjorie Edson, told me. “He couldn’t be more loving. I’ve never met anyone like him. My biggest regret is that we never had a child together. Our children are all the recipients of this scholarship. His legacy is that. He’s given these kids hope. He’s given them a path to follow.’’

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And they are on their way.

A newspaper clipping about Sullivan’s death.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
A newspaper clipping about Sullivan’s death.

To read the high school essays of the scholarship applicants — not much younger than Paul Sullivan was when he went off to war — is to read the words of altruism and hope, of dedication and selflessness.

They are athletes and coaches. They are from close-knit families. They carry themselves with quiet dignity. They volunteer. They work. They want to make a difference and are determined to do it.

They sound a lot like Paul Sullivan.

The fifth of nine children, Sullivan was born a week before Christmas in 1943, the son of a conductor for the Boston and Maine Railroad, who made runs to Gloucester and Portland, Maine, while his wife tended to their young and growing family — five boys and four girls — at their homestead on Upland Road here.

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Paul was the kid on the steps of the church on Sunday morning, selling the Sunday Globe for teen-age spending money. He used the cardboard from dry-cleaned shirts to sketch out grids, designating the time he would study, the time he would read, the time he would play.

“He was the big brother and I was always tagging along,’’ his brother Tom Sullivan recalled. “We used to go down to the playground and there was a kid a little older then my brother who used to bully the hell out of me. Paul always told me: ‘You’ve got to stand up for yourself.’ Finally, this guy pushed me a little bit harder than my brother would accept. And Paul proceeded to deck him.’’

In carefully tended family scrapbooks, yellowing newspaper clips tell the story of schoolboy sports heroics. There’s a black-and-white photo of him on the fabled parquet floor of the old Boston Garden. Inch-high headlines tell the tale of when he and his St. Mary’s High School teammates won the Eastern Massachusetts Class B Tech Tournament, defeating Braintree High at the buzzer.

The seeds of the romance that would lead him to the matrimonial altar were planted at a St. Mary’s High School Coca-Cola machine, where he and Marjorie Jenney of Waltham left flirtatious notes for each other.

Photo by Pat Greenhouse

“He was an unbelievable person,’’ she said. “When he asked me to marry him, I was like: What? Are you sure? He was such a good, good, profoundly good person. He didn’t have an enemy.’’

They were married in July 1967, two years after Paul’s graduation from Boston College. And they spent their early days as husband and wife at Fort Benning, Ga., where Paul Sullivan began surrounding himself with soldiers who consider him — even in death — their lifetime friend.

“Paul was rooted and had a strong value system,’’ said Conrad H. Busch Jr., now a retired Army colonel. “He was a very stabilizing influence on me at a time in my life when I had a lot of maturing to do. Paul and Margie had this strong moral compass. They seemed to know what they were about and where they were going.’’

Where Paul was going was a foreign land far from the cocoon of family and friends in Watertown.

“I was really worried about him going,’’ his sister Eleanor Donato said. “Every time you turned around there was somebody else killed. But he really wanted to be a guidance counselor, and he said, ‘How am I going to counsel kids thinking about a military career when I don’t know what I’m talking about?’ ’’

He arrived in Vietnam on July 5, 1968, a destination that he considered his solemn duty.

“Many people advised me to keep away from the infantry,’’ Lieutenant Sullivan wrote in a soul-searching letter home to his brother Bob. “I got the impression that they had the attitude of let the other guy do the fighting, not you. I was disgusted with this attitude. I think maybe this was the main reason for choosing the infantry. I don’t figure it should be the other guy since I feel we are all created equal and we should not discriminate when it comes to such a thing as fighting and dying for your country.’’

Those words would prove prescient.

On Aug. 9, 1968, Paul Sullivan left base camp at Dau Tieng, where the 25th Infantry Division had been receiving mortar, rocket, and small-arms fire. Sullivan was commanding a squad of men who had crossed an open field and passed through a small village. Enemy soldiers began firing from a defensive position.

“Paul dismounted and gallantly rallied his platoon leading them against the hostile force,’’ Captain Donald W. Schiltz, an infantry commander, wrote in an account of the firefight that the Sullivans now keep in their scrapbook.

“It was then that he was fatally wounded by enemy small arms fire. It may afford you some consolation to know that death came immediately and that Paul was not subjected to any prolonged suffering.. . . Quiet yet forceful in his leadership, Paul had already earned the respect and devotion of the men of the 1st Platoon.’’

Tom Sullivan was at home watching the Red Sox with his family on a Saturday afternoon when the local priest pulled up outside and climbed the front steps to deliver the shattering news.

“My mother asked him to say the rosary with us,’’ Tom Sullivan recalled. “I offered to call my siblings, but my father said, ‘No, I’m going to do that.’ ’’

When the flag-draped casket containing the body of Lieutenant Paul J. Sullivan arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, his old friend Connie Busch was there to greet it and to escort him home to Watertown, where he extended his sympathies to Margie Sullivan, now Paul’s widow.

“Even though his life was cut tragically short, I honestly think I was a better person for having known him,’’ Busch told me. “Sometimes you look at horrific events and you think nothing good can come of it and yet out of those ashes of despair comes some glimmer of positiveness.’’

The wake at the funeral home that summer was endless as those who had watched young Paul Sullivan grow into a man, a coach, and a soldier filed by his casket to pay their respects. More than 500 attended his requiem Mass at Sacred Heart Church, where Bishop Eric F. MacKenzie delivered the eulogy. The pews were filled with the men who had been the boys from the local baseball diamonds and neighborhood basketball courts.

Jim Nelson was there. He and Sullivan had been friends since the eighth grade.

“I like to think I was Paul’s best friend but that’s not true because there were so many others who were Paul’s best friend simply because we wanted to be and he allowed us to think that,’’ said Nelson, who recalled nearly collapsing when the news of his friend’s death was announced from the pulpit during a Sunday morning Mass.

Nelson said he can’t listen to Joan Baez’s version of “Forever Young’’ without thinking of his boyhood friend, whose smiling exuberance was contagious.

“May God bless and keep you always. May your wishes all come true. May you always do for others. And let others do for you. May you build a ladder to the stars. And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.’’

A circa 1956 photograph of, from left, Eleanor, Paul, and Tom, is kept in the family’s scrap book and photo album.
Photo by Pat Greenhouse
A circa 1956 photograph of, from left, Eleanor, Paul, and Tom, is kept in the family’s scrap book and photo album.

Nelson, a former Suffolk University athletic director, will be at the Sons of Italy hall in Watertown on Saturday, where he will introduce the nominees for the Lieutenant Paul J. Sullivan Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship, which began as a $500 award, has grown impressively. This year, $23,000 is being awarded.

The Sullivan family, as always, will be there, as will 15 Sullivan grandchildren and nearly all of the family’s 22 great-grandchildren, most of them not yet born when Paul Sullivan went off to war.

“I often mention the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ with Jimmy Stewart,’’ Tom Sullivan said. “He sees what life would have been like if he had passed away. And you often wonder what effect he would have had on my life, or how my life would have been different.

“You wonder how the kids whose lives he touched would have been influenced by his teaching and his coaching. I think the world would have been a little bit better if Paul had lived.’’

And, fleetingly, he will this weekend, in a function hall in his hometown where his legacy lives on through kids who have promised to keep Paul Sullivan’s memory alive — and forever young.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.