Updated April 27, 2015
From the beginning, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan was intimate with the human cycle of life and death. Growing up in Jim Crow Georgia as the son of a mortician, he said, “even death was segregated.” His father was the only African-American undertaker in the small town of Blakely, Ga., owning the funeral home and providing a respectful burial to residents who would otherwise be subjected to back entrances and a mule-driven hearse from a white mortician.
Dr. Sullivan described the realities of the shameful era: “Every way you could find to push back against that segregation, that indignity, was of value. I would help a colleague of my father’s named Dr. Joseph Griffin, the only local black doctor serving black patients. Even at 5 years old, this doctor made a huge impression on me. When you opened the door to his clinic, there was a pungent smell of ether, and his mysterious green scrubs are imprinted upon my memory. This man had the power to cure people, to do things other people couldn’t do. I knew from that time I would become a doctor.”
Dr. Sullivan, creator of the Sullivan 5K Run/Walk for Health & Fitness on Martha’s Vineyard (now in its 27th year) served as secretary of Health and Human Services in the cabinet of George H.W. Bush, and is a 2015 recipient of the coveted NAACP Image Award in literature for his extraordinary autobiography Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine (University of Georgia Press, 2014). He has been widely renowned as the most effectual secretary to ever serve in Health and Human Services, initiating not only transformative policy, but formally pioneering theories on preventive health care and everyday behavior as the foundation for a healthy America.
The distinguished summer Vineyard resident has passionately dedicated his life to the health and well-being of others, and credits his astounding success to his motto, “‘Be prepared. Chance favors the prepared mind.’ I like to hope that whatever opportunity and situation develops, I am prepared to not only manage at it, but excel at solving the problem.”
His unrelenting work has continued as chairman of the board of the National Health Museum in Atlanta, Ga., and chairman of the Washington, D.C.–based Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions –– a national nonprofit organization with a community-focused agenda to diversify and transform health professions’ education and health delivery systems.
Dr. Sullivan’s valiant life story, as told in Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine, chronicles his rise to influence and leadership in national education, health, and social justice arenas.
Recently, I was honored to talk with Dr. Sullivan in Washington, D.C.; his elegance and smile radiate the health we all seek, from the inside out, from a life well-lived, and a passion for impacting the lives of others.
KG: How did you first find your way to the Vineyard?
LWS: In the summer of 1966, my wife and I were in the process of moving back to Boston as I was asked to join the faculty of Boston University School of Medicine, my alma mater. We needed a vacation, and we had heard of Martha’s Vineyard, and fell in love from our first visit. In ’68 we bought our first house there, and we have not missed a summer since then.
KG: What is your most indelible memory of your experiences on the Island?
LWS: The early-morning light. We face eastward, and I go on walks along the beach. Those beautiful sunrises and my quiet time in the mornings are of deep value to me.
KG: The unique and historic African-American community on our Island has sometimes made residents feel they are exempt from the rest of the country’s struggle in race and social equality issues. The myth of paradise is a difficult psychology that full-time Vineyarders deal with. Spanning the time you’ve spent there, have race relations mirrored the rest of the country or are we truly an Island apart?
LWS: From my perspective, race relations on the Vineyard are better in general than around the rest of the country. I find the Vineyard to be very open and progressive, even in the late ’60s when we arrived. You have very accomplished artists, musicians, lawyers, engineers living there, where there’s so much opportunity to have ideas floated and tested. You have the opportunity for open discussion. Nevertheless, the Vineyard does have unique paradoxes, both subtle and overt signs that we still have racial issues and problems. The other paradox is that the people who come for the summer witness that, among the full-time residents, prosperity is not easily attained, and there is great stratification of who can afford to vacation there and who can barely afford to live there year-round.
KG: In your new book, you’re chronicling the journey that carried and forged your life and career — from a victim of segregation to national leader. In 1970 James Baldwin sat down with Margaret Mead for A Rap on Race –– in their lengthy conversation, they deeply considered sources of American identity. Baldwin says, “You are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it, and whether or not you can reach it.” What are your reflections on this sentiment?
LWS: I agree with Baldwin. I have had a number of role models, people who had been groundbreakers long before me, yet first and foremost were my parents. Education was always a priority in my family, and we were sent away to Savannah and later Atlanta because they believed so deeply in getting my brother and me out of the poor schools of Blakely, Ga. My father began the first chapter of the NAACP in the area, he worked vigorously on voting rights, he organized the first emancipation celebration in Blakely, and did so much to support African Americans becoming politically active and involved. My mother in her own right was a schoolteacher, and was a pioneer, holding a master’s degree in education as an African-American women –– when I told her I wanted to be a doctor there wasn’t even a pause; she said, “Oh, you’ll be a great doctor.”
KG: Your work in transforming healthy habits is one of your greatest legacies, including the Sullivan 5K Run/Walk on the Vineyard, happily in its 27th year and having raised more than $400,000 for Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. What, in your perspective, are the greatest barriers in changing poor health habits?
LWS: You’ve got to convince people they can make small changes that pay huge dividends. My wife and I started walking together early in the morning, at first as a weight control strategy, but it soon shifted to a time of connecting with nature and with each other. That sharing is healthy on many levels. When I was secretary, people knew about my walks, and as I traveled, people began to join me. I have always emphasized that walking, swimming, and other calisthenics can greatly influence your own health, and are a gateway to healthy living. This was the inspiration for beginning the 5K Run/Walk on the Vineyard, as well as formal policy I generated during my time as secretary. My overriding commitment is to work to improve the health of people and our nation, but the most important factor is really improving the health behavior of our citizens. The most important success factor of 20th century medicine was due to scientific advances, in vaccines, therapies, and technologies. But we are at the stage now, that at the end of 21st century, if we are successful at improving the health behavior of individuals, we will see the advances far exceed advantages of the 20th century. Preventive health care can only work by improving health literacy, and prevention is a difficult concept to implement. To bridge the gap between knowledge and action is crucial.
KG: Taking a page from the legendary Marcel Proust interview popularized by Bernard Pivot, I am going to ask you a few questions that tell us a bit about Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the man behind the icon. Who is your favorite character of fiction?
LWS: (laughs) Dick Tracy.
KG: Who is your favorite character in real life?
LWS: Dr. Benjamin Mays, the sixth president of Morehouse College. He was outspoken about segregation and social injustice. He was eloquent, articulate, and wrote extensively on the issues that became central to the civil rights movement. He embodied elegance and courage, he made tremendous contributions to other people’s lives, he dressed well, he was a spellbinding speaker, and everyone wanted to hear what he had to say. He charged us to strive to be excellent, and he would say, “He who starts out life in second place must run faster.” His message was, Whatever you choose to do in life, you should do it so well that no man living, no man dead, no man yet to be could do it better.
KG: What do you most value in your friends?
KG: What book is on your bedside table?
LWS: The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, by Joseph A. Califano.
KG: What historical figure do you most identify with?
LWS: George Washington Carver; Martin Luther King Jr.; W.E.B. DuBois.
KG: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
LWS: (long pause) To not be in control of your senses. You can stand a lot of physical discomfort, but mental disease, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, or drug addiction would be significantly worse.
KG: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
LWS: Having a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, that you have utilized the day well, and you have something to show for your efforts.
KG: Your most productive time of day?
KG: Your greatest love?
LWS: (without hesitation) My wife.
An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that the Sullivan 5K Run/Walk on the Vineyard, has raised more than $40,000 for Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the correct figure is more than $400,000. Additionally an earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Dr. Sullivan’s father organized the first emancipation celebration in Atlanta, however the event was in Blakely, Ga.