Fairfield 375: John J. Sullivan changed Fairfield politics forever, and his legacy continues

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

John J. Sullivan was Fairfield's first selectman for 24 years, from 1959 to 1983, the town's longest-serving chief executive. What was remarkable at the time of his election was Sullivan's ethnic, religious and political background -- he was an Irish Catholic and a Democrat, new elements in Fairfield's long history of Yankee-Protestant leadership.

Significant aspects of Sullivan's legacy include centralization of local government authority in the office of first selectman, his strong support for public education at a time when the school population was growing rapidly and the acquisition of more than 1,200 acres of open space, recreational and other property for the town. Among the properties he acquired for the town were Penfield Beach, Lake Mohegan and the Cascades open space, as well as the land used many years later to build Burr Elementary School.

Sullivan died in 1997 at age 91.

After Sullivan retired at the end of his 12th term, deciding not to run for re-election in 1983, he was interviewed as part of the W.E. Burr Oral History Project. The excerpts of his conversation with interviewer John Ford give a glimpse of Sullivan's background and his philosophy about governing and politics:

On arrival in Fairfield in 1935:

"I was going with a girl from Providence, who I eventually married. My brother Dave was down here and I bought my first automobile. So I asked her if she'd take a ride with me down in Connecticut. So we ... came down here for a visit and here I am ... I liked it the minute I came down here."

On what Fairfield was like when he opened a florist shop:

"Post Road was much different than it is now. It had car tracks in the middle. The trolleys used to go from Bridgeport to Norwalk, back and over to Bridgeport. At that time they had just developed Reef Road into an acceptable, first-rate road.

"At that time there were about 18,000 people in Fairfield. The annual budget was less than a million dollars. I found that after you went over by North Benson Road, the rest of it was Bridgeport. Stratfield was oriented with Bridgeport. At that time Bridgeport was up and coming, had a lot of nice stores, everything seemed to be rosy there.

"Things started to develop. Fairfield was growing at about 1,000 people a year. In those years that followed, the universities came along; everything just seemed to be growing. Black Rock Turnpike -- I know when you got up there going over to Stratfield to make a delivery you went over ... a road basically that was sand and gravel. Not like it is now.

"When the war was over, you had a lot of people that had come here from the South and Midwest, and worked in the industries ... These were times before the Thruway and the Merritt Parkway ... When the Merritt Parkway was built ... it dropped my business by about $35 a day."

On education:

"Education always became an issue. As long as I've been here, education, to a greater or lesser degree, has been an issue all the time, because it's so hard to understand the ramifications to it ... They never used to bother with education but we sat down with the superintendent of education and said, this year we're going to give you wages for the teachers, the next year we put into building and equipment.

"The community was growing at the time. Every time you'd get a school building committee for the grammar school, before you got through there was a subdivision going up somewhere else ... so you had to start another building committee."

On Fairfield politics in the 1950s:

"The political climate was strictly Republican. This was a Republican town. You could have your friends Republican and your friends Democrat and you could assimilate together and be friends, social and all that. But it was there. When they went to vote that was all there was to it.

"I was asked to run for first selectman many times before I actually did.

"I never hid where I was. I was a Democrat and I was a Catholic and that's all there was to it. They could either take me as I am and I'll take you as you are and we'll all be happy."

On his 12 terms as first selectman:

"I always liked people and politics.

"I don't' remember if I ever woke up in the morning and said, `I wish I didn't have to go to work today.' ... I never took my number out of the book and I never had another phone where you could circumvent going through the regular phone. If you wanted to get somebody in my home, you rang the same number the day after I got in, the day before I got in, and the day I left."