In the US Army and as a Norwich trustee, retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan excelled

Two generals meet at Norwich: Army Chief of staff Mark Milley, left, chats with retired General and Norwich Board of Trustees Chairman Gordon Sullivan during the ROTC centennial.

Two generals meet at Norwich: Army Chief of staff Mark Milley, left, chats with retired General and Norwich Board of Trustees Chairman Gordon Sullivan during the ROTC centennial.

“I thought they only named museums after dead guys,” quipped Gen. Mark Milley of Gen. Gordon Sullivan, in a Todd lecture Milley gave while visiting Norwich for the centennial celebration of ROTC.

Milley’s crack about the Sullivan Museum and History Center may have been spot on: Gordon Sullivan has long been the exception, not the rule.

Arguably the most important alumnus of Norwich in its almost two centuries of existence, Sullivan served for 36 years in the army, transitioning the force from post-Cold War excess to a much smaller, readier force in his final assignment as chief of staff of the United States Army.

For the last 21 years, Sullivan has served on the Norwich Board of Trustees, and has been its chairman since 2003. However, he will step down after this spring’s board session, where his successor will be chosen.

Whoever that may be, they have some big shoes to fill. “As the chairman of the board, Dr. Schneider and I worked together as a team and put together the 2019 program, actually the strategy to get us to 2019, and we actually made most of the goals early,” Sullivan said in an interview last week.

He is not simply an effective executive, but an incredible leader and person, and he attributes all of that to Norwich. “I’ve either been in or around the army for 61 years, and Norwich was a big part of my life, was and is, and to me it’s special and I am really proud to say that I am a Norwich graduate,” said Sullivan.

At Norwich, Sullivan didn’t necessarily stand out, but he made his mark on classmates. He even wrote a column for The Guidon called “Sully’s Scratchings.” “I really enjoyed the hell out of it,” he recounted.

“I’ve never hidden the fact that I was probably not the world’s greatest cadet, I wasn’t,” he said. “But you know, the reason it was so important to me is that while I was here, I found out who I really was and what I wanted to do, so what’s not to like,” he said of Norwich.

“Did I fully understand how important Norwich was to me at the age of 22, probably not. But it was very important to me,” he remarked.

Oftentimes, in addresses to Norwich audiences, Sullivan will reference the “secret sauce,” that makes the university and its people so special. “I don’t know how you would define the secret sauce but I would define it as involving people.”

“You stand on the shoulders of the people who go before you. It’s complicated, but it all comes down to people. It’s all about people,” Sullivan said. “Norwich is a family, that’s part of it. You make friends for life,” he continued.

Friends for life was no understatement. “I talk to some of my classmates every week and I am almost 80!” he said. Norwich is where he met some of his best friends, but the most important people in his life were his mother, his wife, and the mentors he found in the army.

His directness and refreshing candor was perhaps developed partially by Gen. Carl Vuono, under whom he served in the first infantry division, “Big Red One” out of Ft. Riley, Kansas.

“I would develop ideas and so forth and he would say ‘OK Sully, that is a great idea, but what do you want me to do? What decision do you want me to make to help you move this along?’ That was an important lesson. It is easy to come up with the ideas. That is not the hard part. You have lots of ideas guys around. Being able to go from theory to practice. Being able to take all these good ideas and make something out of them, that is the hard part,” Sullivan recounted.

Sullivan’s leadership lessons started at Norwich. “The first week, you get your uniform, you learn how to put it on, but then you don’t have to shout at anybody,” he explained. “OK, at the end of the week, we would expect that you can do these tasks. That can be a very positive learning environment. But for some of these guys and gals, it’s an exercise in you demonstrating what a jerk you are because you are shouting at people who have never done those things before. Teaching, OK, I’m going to show you how to do it and we are going to practice. That’s the way to do it. I don’t know what is so hard,” he explained.

“Negative leadership, I can tell you, takes you nowhere. Some people presume that the tradition is shouting. There’s a long way from Northfield to being a combat soldier, you are not professionals and nobody needs to worry about that. By the time that happens, if it does, you will have gone through a heck of a lot of very well-thought-out training, task conditions and standards, not just some guy shouting at you. It’s knowing how to assemble and disassemble our weapon. All of those things are not issues that we should be shouting at people,” Sullivan explained.

When asked if this was it for him, Sullivan responded “No, I am going to do something for the rest of my life.” Though he is retiring from the board, he’s not going anywhere. “I hope I am going to do some stuff here at Norwich next year and in the next few years and I hope to interface with the cadets. I like young people and I think maybe it’s just being around, that’s where I am the best, drinking coffee and answering questions,” he said.

While it is apparent that his service to Norwich is not over, Sullivan’s hand at the helm will be missed. Naturally, he doesn’t regret a thing. “People have to find their own profession, whatever it is, but for sure, if you find something you love, you are going to be a heck of a lot more satisfied when it is all over. If you can do something you love, and get up and say I’d do it again, you’ve lived a pretty good life and I really believe that I would do it again if I could.”


  1. Gretchen Zottoli says:

    Hello to Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a blast from your past. My name is Gretchen Zottoli and we were in Algebra class together at Thayer Academy many years age. You graduated in ’55 and I did in ’56. I just heard that you met my grandson, Regimental Exec. officer Sam DeLong at your retirement luncheon last week. He will be graduating in two weeks and has benefited greatly from all Norwich has offered. He is off to Law School in the Fall. Thayer has kept me in touch with your many accomplishments over the years, but never mentioned your long time service to Norwich. When Sam told his Mom about meeting you, I astonished them with the info that we had shared a class many years age! small World! Best Regards, Gretchen Zottoli

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