Jesuit Father William (Bill) J. Sullivan died at St. Camillus Jesuit Community in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, on June 16, 2015. He was 84 years old. He served as president of Seattle University from 1976 to 1996, the longest-serving president in the school’s history.
Born in Freeport, Illinois, on December 20, 1930, Fr. Sullivan spent most of his childhood in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where he attended St. Gabriel’s Grade School and Campion Jesuit High School as a day student. He entered the Society of Jesus at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri. Fr. Sullivan completed his theology studies at Fourvière in Lyon, France; was ordained a priest on September 2, 1961; made tertianship in Münster, Germany; and pronounced final vows on August 15, 1965.
During his regency, Fr. Sullivan taught Latin and Greek at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, Nebraska. Following his ordination, he continued studying theology, first in Heidelberg, Germany, then at Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D. Fr. Sullivan taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee, first while completing his Ph.D. in the late 1960s and again in the mid-1970s. He also served as dean of Saint Louis University’s School of Divinity from 1971-1975.
Fr. Sullivan committed most of his life, however, to the apostolic work of Seattle University. He served as the school’s provost from 1975-1976 and its president from 1976-1996. As president, Fr. Sullivan helped grow Seattle University into a premier university of the Northwest. He increased enrollment, added numerous programs, brought a law school to campus, founded the School of Theology and Ministry, built the architecturally renowned Chapel of St. Ignatius, increased scholarships, and steered the university onto a course of financial stability.
His vision for Seattle University was always guided by mission. This sometimes made him a contrarian figure, such as when he decided to remove the men’s basketball team from the NCAA. More broadly, Fr. Sullivan helped reshape contemporary Jesuit higher education in the United States.
From his youth in Prairie du Chien through his years at Seattle University, Fr. Sullivan showed himself to be a natural leader with a keen intellect. These qualities contributed to his skill as an orator (he was a champion debater at Campion), while his outspokenness helped him transform Seattle University. His presidential pastimes of sailing and crew earned him the reputation as a saltwater buff.
Following a stroke, Fr. Sullivan stepped down as president in 1996. He remained at Seattle University as the school’s first president emeritus and chancellor. In 2009, health concerns brought him to St. Camillus, where he lived until his death.