You never know when you will meet someone special. I met a man in 2009 who would affect my life profoundly and I didn’t even know it at the time.
Rollie Sullivan held the John and Elizabeth Myers Endowed Chair in Management at St. John’s University from 1983 to 1990. Before that, he spent 45 years at First Bank Systems and was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.
I got to know Rollie when he visited St. John’s University in the early- to mid-2000s. My office was in Simons Hall and every fall I would see an older man visiting with Sue Zimmer, the 2nd floor office manager. I asked Sue who he was and she introduced us. From then on, when I would appear on MPR or write something for the papers I would get a note or phone call from Rollie, usually with a question about a point I had made.
Rollie came up to St. John’s every October with a men’s group from Incarnation Lutheran Church in Shoreview. They had a Friday-Saturday retreat, and Rollie invited faculty from our campuses to give talks to the group. After the 2008 financial crisis, Rollie asked if I could put something together for them. I agreed and didn’t think much of it until October 2009.
That’s when I found out that this wasn’t just a random group. They were (and still are) a lively bunch of intelligent men of all political persuasions. They were retired only in the sense of not working for pay. The group included retired professionals from a variety of large and small companies in the Twin Cities, and even included a retired economist (Larry Wipf from Norwest Bank.)
I still have the slides from that talk: “The U.S. Economy in November 2009: Where We Are, Where We Are Going.” I remember getting only a few slides into the session when I started getting questions. I’m not sure I got through everything I’d prepared as we set off on a freewheeling discussion of the regional, national, and international economies.
Afterwards, when Rollie asked if would be interested in doing it again, I jumped at the chance. I had found a group with which I could test ideas and learn from participants in events I had only read about. I started thinking about topics in August and September and knew that if I could sharpen my arguments and marshal my evidence to the satisfaction of the Incarnation group in October, I had something that others would find useful as well.
Over the next few years, our sessions evolved from an annual economic update to closer looks at specific topics such as the “fiscal cliff,” Minnesota’s economic history, and the evolution of the Federal Reserve.
This fall I received a call from Jim Fruehling, who helped Rollie organize the retreat and gradually took over leading it as Rollie got older. Jim said that Rollie was too frail to travel and that they were canceling the St. John’s retreat.
It physically hurt to hear this; I looked forward to this event every fall and couldn’t imagine not getting together. I offered to come down to St. Paul if Rollie was up to it and so we had our last session at Incarnation Lutheran Church on November 9. We looked at China’s economy since 1978 and focused on its recent economic troubles. As usual we had a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Rollie sitting near the front and flashing his usual bright smile.
Rollie was in a wheelchair, and when I hugged him and said good bye I had a feeling I might not see him again. Unfortunately I was right: Rollie Sullivan died this past Sunday, March 13.
Thank you, Rollie. You, and the men of Incarnation Lutheran, gave me a gift that I will treasure, the gift of intelligent, passionate conversation combined with a deep desire to understand the world. I’ll work to pass it along to others in the years ahead.