Eulogy for Peter Robert Sullivan
By Darin Sullivan, as given at the funeral service 9th April 2013
Peter Robert Sullivan – my Dad
There is a great irony that I stand here giving this speech today. He was a great speaker himself –As good as anyone I’ve ever seen. The truth is, he’s always been there to do this stuff for us at tough times. He was the guy at family funerals who got up and spoke with dignity. He was the MC at all our weddings, he dominated the floor when it came to speeches, and he loved every minute of it.
Like most people, I was the opposite. I feared speeches. I dreaded speaking in public. But I grew up watching my old man strutting around the floor with a mic, telling jokes and giving a performance. But here I am today, doing for him what he did for so many others.
So settle in, becasue this is Peter Sullivan’s day…. and if there was ever going to be a long speech, this is it.
Dad was an honest, warm and caring man who for mine had one dominant characteristic among so many – and that is loyalty. I guarantee most people here can think of a time when Dad sacrificed something for them. He had time for us all. He was relentless as a friend, and a subtle but powerful mentor.
He always did things 100%. I can vividly remember him telling me as a young boy that if I was going to do something, to do it 100%, or not at all. I’ve always tried to do that.
He had a gift of speaking with people. He would light a room up when he walked into it. Even at the shops he would walk in, and greet the owner or the worker, with a loud ‘hello’ and a positive word to say. He spoke to people like that whether you were the boss, or the worker, rich or poor. Everyone was important, and they knew it when he left.
We were up his local club yesterday meeting with the Chaplain, and we saw one of the waiters. He asked, Where is Peter?”. When we told him Dad was gone, the waiter cried. The RSL waiter cried in the middle of the bistro. That’s the effect he had on everyday people.
As a father he did everything. We holidayed and we had all things a middle class family should have. He worked, and he worked hard. We fished, we rode motor bikes, we had boats, surfboards, we had cars (always Fords), we had pets, and we had toys. As you know, he liked toys.
We were always safe. We had a hard working father who worked three jobs at one point, and we had a beautiful mother at home, both doing their best.
Like any family we had our tough times, and mum and dad certainly had theirs. We had debt. Debt always worried Dad, but he would still give as much as he physically could, then give what he didn’t have.
Dad’s parents were divorced when he was young. This had as many positives as it did negatives, including a new Sister – Trish (and her family) that he loved dearly. But it did have a powerful effect on his life, and I believe he made it a life goal to keep our family together no matter what. Mum and Dad did that and they should be proud of it. Indeed, as dad’s cancer took hold, mum and dad became even closer, a love and strength for each other that was unbreakable.
He was born 29th August, 1944. After living with his mum until he was about 18, he moved in with Dad and Dot (his other mum, who he also cherished his whole life). He also traveled to different parts of rural NSW to live with relatives and by chance. He loved the land. He had an affinity for horses and all things rural throughout his life.
But city life called and he started work in a box factory, where he met mum’s parents. Then he met mum, and the rest there is history. Buying a block of land at Heathcote gave them somewhere to build when they got married, and that’s what they did. I remember Dad telling me that his Dad, Paddy, expressed concern that they were moving so far out from the city. Of course, that area soon became part of Sydney, but at the time it was seen as almost rural. A true family home, a great place to grow up for us kids.
He tried a couple of businesses, but there was a calling for him that he spent a lifetime trying to satisfy – military life. Like so many of his generation, his father, uncles, and father-in law all served in WWII. I think he really felt an obligation to serve, that’s that loyalty that I spoke of.
Family and no call up meant no Vietnam for Dad, but part of him wanted to serve. He eventually joined the army reserve as a medic, but there was still the need for a military type career eating away at him. Hepatitis B stopped him joining the NSWFB (now Fire and Rescue NSW), so he turned to aviation firefighting, and found a home there. The para-military rank and work style of firefighting suited him to the ground, and he excelled. Within ten years or so he was a Station Officer, and soon after he was acting up as a Senior Aviation Officer. During a twenty year career he made life friends, and had a deep impact on hundreds of firefighters across Australia. Many of the airport guys went on to become firefighters in the NSWFB, who I now work alongside (some here today). Many still remain in the Airport firies and they are here today alongside retired comrades too. I’m proud to have you all here, he would be proud.
All of them rate him as a fair man, a wise mentor, a good firey, and a strong, modern leader. He always told me that the key to being a good leader was being able to follow first. He was also the first person I heard say, “Never forget you came from the engine bay floors” – a phrase we sometimes hear in our service today, but not often enough. You can imagine the boots I had to fill when I got that firefighting blood in my veins. A legacy remains of his work at the airport, not least of which includes being a Union official and founding delegate of the national firefighters Union. I think you can see that the theme of my life was to take what Dad started and to try to improve and build on that.
In his 50’s he hit a career ceiling at the airport, and debt was still smothering him, so he did what seemed natural and mixed his firefighting skills with his business skills. He went into fire safety and engineering – a new beginning. Like so many times before he gave his all and he made life long friends. Friends who admire him, and who also count him as a mentor and specialist at what he did. (Of course, there are many from the fire engineering community here today too).
So his work life was varied, and significant. I could go on about his experiences in those fields, especially as a firefighter, but I’ll save that for the wake. Let’s just say he did his best, and gave 100%. He had a profound impact on people.
His home away from home of course was the family caravan at 7 mile beach, Gerroa. Going there as children and the beach life that gave us impacted on me so much I ended up moving down there and bringing my family up in that area. He and mum loved it at 7 Mile Beach, we all did. Mum and dad have many life friends who also have caravans there. Of course, most of them are here today too. I went for a surf at 7 mile on the weekend, and I could still see dad walking on the beach with his beagle. So many stories from our caravan days….. again, best left for the wake.
The other place I’d like to mention is Probus at Helensburgh. This group became mum and dad’s new hangout more recently, and many of them are here today. No doubt they will take care of mum for dad now too.
There’s one thing I must mention – his sense of humour. A gift he gave our family, and a skill that my mother, Lea, Glen and I have carried on in our own lives. A sense of humour that knows no bounds, not even death. Monty Python was a staple in our house growing up, and humour is probably the strongest memory I have of Dad. Like his loyalty, it was relentless. I can tell you that his sense of humour carried on right through his illness. While the nurses would test his memory in the hospital over the last few weeks, they would ask him various questions, “do you know what day it is? Do you know what year it is? Do you know the Prime minister’s name?”. Well, Dad had trouble with the current PM (Julia Gillard) on several levels, something we disagreed on. But nonetheless, it was his show in the hospital room. Whenever the nurses would ask who the PM was, he would pause, look around at family in the room, and mutter in his Gough Whitlam voice, “young lady, we have no prime minister”.
Even better than that, in his final days, he was sleeping so much he was virtually unconscious. One of the nurses gave him his pain relief one day, and she said, “I’ll pop back later and see you Peter”. He awoke just long enough to say, “you better hurry my dear, I can’t promise I’ll be here when you return”. The nurse was a tad taken back, which of course gave Dad the delight he was after.
There is so much I could say about this man, and nothing short of one of his own speeches could do him justice. He had a profound life changing effect on me, and anyone he ever met. He lives though all of us. He taught us so much.
I will however finish with this. Dad searched all his life for answers, and he even started a memoir (dramatically and aptly) called – “Reflections of a life spent seeking”. In it, he finished a forward chapter writing:
“And so, for what it is, I present you with a story about a very ordinary bloke who, even as he approaches his demise, simply doesn’t know what it was all about”.
Like all the great searchers of the world, he might not have known what he did, or why, but we all do. We know what you did Dad, and we know why. Your six grand daughters, your friends and family, we all know what it was about. It was about the life you gave us.
Peter Robert Sullivan. Family man, businessman, firefighter, fire engineer, army reservist, pilot, and master brewer. He received the Australian defence medal, and the National Medal. He fought the hardest of all battles, and we watched him fight on his terms.
Survived by his wife Judy, his Mother Dot, his Sister Trish, and his most excellent children Glen, Leanne, and myself. He counted Caitlin and Vanessa as his daughters, and he would say his finest work was his cherished grandchildren Kate, Jade, Domi, Angie, Anika and Priya. Six girls who brought love and pride into his life.
Dad, we’re all proud to be your family, proud to be your friends, and I’m proud to say I’m your son. I thank you for your love, your hard work, for your dedication to all of us, and for always being there.
You left nothing undone – nothing unsaid – Rest in peace old mate. We miss you.