An American Journey: General Gordon R. Sullivan, ’59

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “…our responsibility as lucky Americans is to try to give back to this country as much as it has given us, as we continue our American journey together.”

I personally know of few individuals who have lived their lives according to that quote more than 32nd Army Chief of Staff General Gordon R. Sullivan, Norwich Class of 1959.

Raised under humble circumstances in Quincy, Mass., Gordon Sullivan enrolled at Norwich in 1955 as a scholarship student, served as a waiter in the mess hall, penned a column for the Guidon, worked construction in the summers, and graduated as a senior buck. He is not ashamed to admit he is the last person his classmates would have predicted would rise to the highest-ranking position in the United States Army. 

But, as General Sullivan has said many times, Norwich allowed him to discover who he really was. He credits his unlikely transformation to what he calls “Norwich’s secret sauce”—a unique combination of tradition, training, and esprit de corps that takes undeveloped adolescents and molds them into leaders of character.

As a newly commissioned second lieutenant of armor, Gordon Sullivan carried important lessons about honor, integrity, and loyalty from the Hill into the Army. But perhaps the greatest lesson he learned at Norwich was how to be a part of something larger than one’s self. When you stop seeing yourself as a lone individual, “looking out for number one,” and instead view your role as one among a multitude, working together for the greater good, that is when you truly “arrive” as an adult.

At no time did this value of serving others before self come into play more than from 1991 to 1995, when Gen. Sullivan served as chief of staff of the Army. The Cold War had ended, replaced by peacetime missions and responsibilities, and Sullivan was tasked with re-engineering the Army and bringing it into the Information Age. He describes this incredible journey in his book, Hope is Not a Method. I have referred to its pages often during my tenure at Norwich, and recommend it highly to anyone shepherding an organization of any size through a significant period of change.

Gen. Sullivan’s service to nation did not end when he retired in 1995 after 36 years of active duty. In some ways, it was just getting under way. Since 1998 he has served as president and CEO of the Association of the United States Army, a dynamic member-based organization that represents soldiers, families, and the defense industry. In addition, he is founder and chair of the board of the Marshall Legacy Institute, a nonprofit formed in 1997 to alleviate suffering and promote hope, growth, and stability in war-torn countries.

This week’s Norwich University Board of Trustees meeting is Gen. Sullivan’s last as chair, in which capacity he has served since 2003. At Thursday night’s Trustees dinner, the Norwich family is paying tribute to his astonishing legacy of leadership. If you happen to spot the general on campus over the next few days, walk up, introduce yourself, and shake his hand. You will be touching the hand of greatness.




  1. Lee Robbins says:

    We heard the General speak at Norwich’s 2016 Homing Coming. What an impressive speaker and man! He is inspiriting.

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