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John J. 'Jack' Sullivan, longtime Sun-Times adman, dead at 76

In the space of six months, 15-year-old Jack Sullivan went from being an only child, to an orphan, to one of a family of 14.

His Aunt Susan and Uncle Hugh O’Malley took him in to their home, already filled with 11 kids. He remembered happiness in the embrace of 26 welcoming arms.

To help his new family make ends meet, he had an after-school job cleaning erasers. Then, he took a bus downtown to work the elevator at the Chicago Athletic Club.

After that, “He would go home at night and do homework,” said his son, Jim. “My dad was a self-made guy. He was a hard worker.”

Perseverance and a cheerful, uncomplaining outlook helped mold the life he wanted. He married the woman he loved, raised three children and spent nearly 40 years in the Chicago Sun-Times advertising department, where he was called “Sully” and he received a set of highball glasses for always managing to get to work, even in the Blizzard of ’79.

He died Dec. 17 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at his Orland Park home. He was 76.

Mr. Sullivan grew up near Addison and Pulaski, the son of Irish immigrants. His father piloted a streetcar. He attended St. Viator Elementary School and St. George High School in Evanston. When he was 15, his father died of a ruptured spleen ,and his mother died of complications from multiple sclerosis.

He moved in with his aunt and uncle nearby — and their 11 kids. Despite his grief, “He said it was a happy time for him, all being under one roof,” his son said.

He met Yvonne, who would become his wife of 56 years, on a blind date in high school. Seeing him, she realized he was the cute boy with a big smile and sparkling blue-gray eyes she had seen around the neighborhood.

After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he found the work steady but stultifying. He had postings in Alaska and Greenland, where planes stopped to refuel. There wasn’t much to do. For entertainment, his son said, “They actually used to throw old hand grenades into the ocean” just to watch them splash.

During a leave, he came home and married Yvonne. He finished out his service in Salina, Kansas.

Back in Chicago, he worked for W.F. Hall Printing. Using the GI bill, he attended Wright Junior College and DePaul University, where he studied marketing.

In 1964, he joined the Sun-Times and wound up as vice president of advertising administration, where “Sully” earned the loyalty of salespeople for approving expense accounts with profitable martini lunches in the “Mad Men” era.

The Sullivans raised their family in Alsip. They enjoyed trips to Australia, England, France, Greece, Italy and Switzerland. An African safari was a highlight of their vacations.

But Mr. Sullivan’s favorite destination was downstate Kilbourne, where his Air Force buddy, Ted Sisson, and his wife, Shelby, raised corn, soybeans, horses, cattle and pigs. Every year, the Sullivans would visit. Their children would become farm kids for a few weeks.

“We played in the fields, we worked ‘pulling corn out of beans,’ ” said his son, removing corn seedlings from soybean fields. “They made homemade ice cream. We rode around in their pickup truck with their dog, Boots.”

Other than that, Mr. Sullivan “loved to be home with the family,” his son said. “He usually walked in the door at 6 o’clock, and we always ate together.” His favorite meal was spaghetti and meatballs and pineapple upside-down cake.

“He was a very simple man, but he always wanted the best for us and my mom,” his son said. “He took the day off to take my sister on her 16th birthday to get her license.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Sullivan is survived by a daughter, Joanne Hickey; another son, John; and five grandchildren. Typical of his warmth was the way he welcomed Jim Sullivan’s partner, Mark Graczyk. “He was just like, ‘You are part of our family,’ from the very beginning,” his son said. “He just loved us all unconditionally.”

Services have been held. His family placed a baseball-style cap in his casket, like the ones worn by farmers in Kilbourne.