Monday, July 25, 2011

What a Man

Eulogy for Governor Bruce Sundlun
As delivered by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sunday, July 24, 2011

What a man. What a life.

Bruce Sundlun’s accomplishments -- as a record-breaking athlete, as a resourceful war hero, as a superb lawyer, as a successful business entrepreneur, and as political leader of our state -- would each on their own be significant. You could probably write a book about each. Together, packed all into one energetic life, it makes Bruce Sundlun one of the most accomplished and remarkable men in our state’s history.

And that’s not even counting five marriages, four children, three unsuccessful runs for governor, two dead raccoons, and one presidential inaugural parade run without a hitch through deep snow for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

There’s really just no way to fit it all in.

Let me step into my role as a Sundlun staffer, and ask you to think just of his brief four years as governor. Hit (on Day One of his administration) by an unprecedented bank failure affecting 300,000 Rhode Islanders, AND by the worst budget deficit in state history, AND by an implosion of the state’s entire worker’s compensation system, AND with the urgent need to restore ethics in government, Bruce was the man for that moment, and swung into his customary decisive action.

The budget was promptly and fairly balanced and the whole budget process improved.

Inventive solutions to repay the depositors and clean up the RISDIC mess were found and implemented, and those at fault were made to pay -- over a hundred million dollars.

His worker’s compensation reform moved the state from an embarrassment to a model, moving what was then the business community’s worst problem completely off the problem list for now going on 20 years.

As a problem solver, he had no peer.

And that alone would be pretty extraordinary. But there was that ethics gap. So Bruce wrote Executive Order 91-One, the ethics executive order that succeeding governors renewed virtually unchanged. He reformed our Ethics Commission. He changed the way we appoint judges, to reduce the politics. He changed the way we fund elections, with a public finance plan and donor limits. Through an intense storm of legal and political opposition, he opened up the pension records; putting an end forever to backroom special pension bills. He got our State Police nationally accredited.

He even cleaned up the Capitol literally!

All that was extraordinary -- but still not enough.

In the worst economic times the state had seen since the Depression, with a shrinking budget, he decided to extend universal health care to children – and started the program that became Rite Care. Against immense opposition, he built our new airport terminal. He embarked on the Westin Hotel, the Convention Center, and the Providence Place Mall. He finished the Jamestown Bridge and built the Expressway. And even that’s not the end of it.

It was an amazing burst of activity. I will bet that almost every Rhode Islander, almost every day, is somehow touched by something Governor Sundlun did.

And through it all, he drove his staff crazy. He was irrepressible, impatient, imperial, unscriptable, combative, frustrating, willful, constantly threw caution to the winds, impossible to keep up with – he drove us nuts.

And we loved him.

We loved him because he was bold and brave, and was warm-hearted and trusting and generous, and because he was willing to throw caution to the winds to do what was right. We loved him because he never once had us make excuses or try to shift the blame.

That was not his style. “Never complain; never explain.”

We all remember his Bruce-isms:

“Always touch base with those concerned before taking action.”

“How fast would you get it done if the Russians were in South Attleboro?”

“When you’ve won, stop talking, close your briefcase and leave.”

“Message to Garcia.”

“Who, what, where, when; don’t bother me with why.”

The phone calls, at all hours, that began with no “hello” and ended with dial tone.

The road shows known to his staff as “Dome on the Roam”, or more precisely, “Bruce on the Loose.”

And sometimes just that big foxy grin.

We saw that his qualities of friendship and loyalty had an almost physical force; that he had your back even if you made mistakes (no one ever was thrown under the bus); and that he was a better friend the more the chips were down.

Politics is full of fair weather friends; Bruce Sundlun was your stormy weather friend. Politics is full of people who take tiny cautious steps with their finger up constantly testing the winds; Bruce stepped boldly down the path he thought was right, even if that meant stepping right in it.

People wonder what lives on after they die. Well, Bruce, we do. And every one of us has been changed: made better, and stronger, harder-working and more resourceful, by your vibrant elemental force in our lives.

We’ve gone on to be judges and lawyers, to run state and federal agencies, to become Senators and councilmen and Lieutenant Governors, banking leaders and senior partners in national accounting firms, but none of us ever will be more proud of anything than the simple title: “I was a Sundlun staffer.”

Soozie and Marjorie, Tracey and Stuart and Peter and Kara: Thank you. Thank you for sharing your husband and father with our state. For those who loved and were changed by him, I thank you. For those who knew and were touched by him, I thank you. And for those who never knew him directly, but whose lives are better today because of what he did, I thank you.

As I close, I want to take you back to a scene from that wonderful movie I saw as a kid, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” As you’ll recall, Atticus Finch takes on the courageous but unpopular defense of a black man wrongfully accused of rape. At the end of the trial, Atticus’s daughter Scout -- proper name Jean Louise -- is up in the gallery of the courtroom, with the black townspeople, who aren’t allowed down on the regular courtroom floor. The courtroom empties, but they remain, and slowly stand. As Atticus packs his papers together, closes his bag, and walks out, an elderly man leans down to the little girl and says, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father’s passing.”

At the end of this service, as Bruce is taken to his gravesite after 91 years of a life well and fully lived, we will all stand up. And rightly so. A governor will be passing.

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