Aug 21, 2023 9:44 PM

Sullivan reflects on decades of service

Posted Aug 21, 2023 9:44 PM
<b>Olive Sullivan, 93, was recognized recently by the multi-state Altrusa district for nearly 60 years of service. Photo/Chris Faulkner</b>
Olive Sullivan, 93, was recognized recently by the multi-state Altrusa district for nearly 60 years of service. Photo/Chris Faulkner

By Chris Faulkner

Olive Sullivan has been actively serving the community for decades in a myriad of groups and organizations. 

She turned 93 in June and was recently recognized by the multi-state Altrusa district for nearly 60 years of service.

But her contribution to the betterment of Burlington goes far beyond the literacy-oriented service club.

Sullivan has been on the Kings Daughters Retirement Home board for 35 years. She was part of Burlington’s first League of Women Voters. Her resume consists of 20 clubs, groups, and boards, including Southeast Iowa United Nations Association, Southeast Iowa Symphony Board, Heritage Trust Board, and Chapter P of the PEO service group. Additionally, she was the first woman to serve on the Des Moines County Conservation Board.

She has been president of 10 different organizations, served as a guide for the Des Moines County Historical Society, and has been an active member of Grace United Methodist Church.

Her long history of service in Burlington is almost unparalleled. 

In 1955, Sullivan came to Burlington by way of Hutchinson, Kan. In Kansas, Sullivan worked as a women’s page editor for the News Herald, a Harris publication. When the women’s page editor at the Harris-owned Hawk-Eye Gazette left to start a family, Sullivan relocated to Burlington.

Soon after her arrival, Sullivan was approached by the Altrusa Club, a service organization meant for women at a time when they were not allowed in other service clubs.

“They got me in right away,” Sullivan said. “I was single, and that was a good way of meeting people, too.”

“The Altrusa Club here was very active,” Sullivan said. “They focus on literacy and teaching people to read around the world.”

Sullivan took some time off from the group, but that didn’t stop her from being involved in the community.

When her oldest child began attending Prospect Hill Elementary School, she was asked to join the school’s Parent Teacher Association. “They wondered if I wanted to be president,” Sullivan said, and she accepted the first of many such presidencies she would hold.

Sullivan worked at the Hawk-Eye Gazette from 1955 through 1959. She then worked part-time and wrote a column until 1970.

Soon after that, she got back into Altrusa.

“That became my social life, I guess,” Sullivan said of her involvement with Altrusa and the growing list of other community groups.

Altrusa took part in the first highway cleanup project locally on a stretch of highway outside the city limits. 

“We did that for quite a few years,” Sullivan said. “Mary Ward was a principal in one of the schools. She knew they were doing it in other communities. She sort of pushed, and we were one of the first that had the pickup.”

In more recent times, club members have read to children in the Head Start program. Sullivan and the club have also helped deliver books to shut-ins as part of the public library’s home delivery program and distributed books at the Farmers Market.

Sullivan also got involved in the League of Women Voters. The local group eventually disbanded, as did the United Nations group, which Sullivan also joined. Several women, however, have restarted the League of Women Voters in recent years.

Sullivan also got back into the work world. In 1975, she took a job as Information Specialist for the Great River Education Agency and worked there until 1996. 

She wrote the Our Town column for the Hawk Eye through 1995.

Her connection with the newspaper got her involved in another service endeavor.

“I did stories on the Kings Daughters Retirement Home here,” Sullivan said. “They had a board that operated the home, and they had an annual tea every year.” In 1988, Sullivan joined the board of directors.

Last year, the home had its 100th anniversary and showed off some of the expansion that it has done. The home also now houses men and not just women, as was its original purpose.

“Through the years, we’ve gotten some funds from families,” Sullivan said. “We’ve gotten sizable funds, and we intend to keep the home going.”

However, civic groups and service organizations of all sizes and focuses are almost all struggling to get new members, and Sullivan doesn’t understand why.

“Another friend and I were the last ones to keep some of these organizations going, and we couldn’t get new members. They just died out. I felt like these were helpful to the community, whatever groups they were,” she said. “I’d like people to feel that maybe they should give a little of themselves to get more from their community.”

The expanded social network is an added benefit, according to Sullivan. “You meet so many people. Through the years, you have a lot of friends,” she said.

Sullivan shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

“I feel fortunate that my health has been good,” she said. “I try to live a good life. I’ve traveled quite a bit and have pretty good health for 93.”

While she can’t predict her lifespan, she said she told a friend, “I want to be able to vote in the 2024 election.”