OAK LAWN, IL — Eugene “Skip” Sullivan, perhaps the most beloved coach and teacher in the history of Oak Lawn Community High School, died Nov. 25 after living with Parkinson’s disease for almost two decades. He was 70 years old.
A life-long resident of Oak Lawn, Sullivan was born June 6, 1951, to Eugene Sullivan, the owner of a metal finishing company, and Doris, a homemaker. His mother nicknamed her only son “Skip” as a baby, so he would stand out from the long line of other Eugene Sullivans in the family. He remained Skip for the rest of his life.
“On the first day of school, when the teacher would call out ‘Eugene Sullivan,’ my dad would correct them,” said his daughter Dana Annel.
As a boy, Sullivan grew up playing sports, always with a baseball, football or basketball in his hands. While still in grammar school, a girl from the neighborhood — Patti Buckels — caught his eye. The two started the junior high school version of dating, going out for Cokes and attending dances at Harnew school. The grammar school sweethearts married on Oct. 27, 1973 during Sullivan’s first year of teaching at OLCHS.
Sullivan was a standout athlete at Oak Lawn Community High School. He was captain of the Spartan football team, played baseball and basketball, and was crowned the class of 1969’s homecoming king. He won a football scholarship to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. During his final baseball game for the Oak Lawn Spartans, Sullivan broke his leg.
“He was playing shortstop, a position he didn’t normally play, and collided with another infielder. It didn’t stop him from going to senior prom,” Annel laughed. “Iowa State held the scholarship open for him.”
Skip broke his leg playing his last baseball game for the Oak Lawn Spartans in 1969, but still made his senior prom with Patti
While at Iowa State, Sullivan played on the baseball team as well as football. When Sullivan graduated from college in 1973 with a degree in education, he headed straight back to Oak Lawn Community High School, which had created a job for him as a full-time substitute teacher. He was immediately put to work coaching the freshmen football and sophomore basketball teams.
Sullivan was hired as a full-time teacher and coach the next year and quickly rose through the coaching ranks, serving as the head varsity baseball coach, assistant varsity girls’ basketball coach, assistant football coach and golf coach. He also taught history and psychology.
Don Erickson, the former head varsity baseball coach and now the information technology director at Reavis High School, and Brian Wujcik, head baseball coach for 27 years and now athletic director at Richards High School, recalled Sullivan’s signature waddle running out to third base to coach his team, excited to be on the field and smiling ear to ear. The three opposing coaches often got together with other baseball coaches from the South Suburban Conference.
“The thing about Skip, he did not have an ego. Everything he did, he did for the kids,” Wujcik said. “Whenever the rest of the coaches would let their ego get in the way, including me, Skip would say, ‘c’mon, let’s do what’s best for the kids.’ He was unwavering.”
More than his coaching, Sullivan is remembered for his talent in connecting with players and students, earning the moniker “Sigmund Sullivan.”
“He had a special relationship with his players, but the ones that gravitated to him most were the ones who didn’t have the greatest home life or a lot of parental support,” Erickson said. “They just loved him. They needed a father figure. He was especially good with those types of kids. He changed their lives.”
“Skip was so kind and considerate, he’d give you a hug after the game and still be competitive,” Erickson continued. “He was an incredible coach and a good field guy. He really knew the game, but he was a far better human being.
During his years at OLCHS, Sullivan also got to coach his son, Michael, in varsity baseball, and daughter, Dana, in varsity girls basketball. Sullivan influenced both his children to enter education; his daughter, Dana, teaches at Kolb Elementary School, and Michael is an assistant to the dean at OLCHS, and a photographer.
“My dad coined the expression ‘once a Spartan, always a Spartan,’ or at least pushed for it,” Michael Sullivan laughed.
His children recall their father as a cool, calm and involved parent, quick with the platitudes — “your attitude defines your altitude” — with an ever present early camcorder perched on his shoulder.
“He taught us life lessons through sports, he was always very involved with us,” Annel said. “I remember him carrying that camcorder around, whether it was dance recitals, games, band concerts or Disney World.”
“If we messed up something, he was quick with the little lines, Michael Sullivan said. “He had a way of knowing what we needed, giving a pep talk to encourage us. He was like this with everybody, including students. It was unconditional love.”
In 2003, Sullivan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The disease forced him to retire three years later. Following his retirement from full-time teaching and coaching, Sullivan was inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.
“I was fortunate enough to be there and listening to his acceptance speech,” Wujcik said. “It was nothing about him, it was all about the players, family, coaches he worked with, everything but what he accomplished.”
Skip and Patti Sullivan with their grandchildren (left to right): Rosie, Caitlin (on Skip’s lap), Chloe and Mason
Sullivan continued his active lifestyle, coaching part-time in the Spartans athletic department, where he served as the assistant girls varsity basketball coach under Janet Haubenreiser-Meyers through 2015.
“He never felt sorry for himself,” said Haubenreiser-Meyers, now a technology coach for OLCHS. “For almost 20 years he endured Parkinson’s, he never let it define him. People admired that about him. He was always optimistic that he would beat this disease. If you asked how he was doing, he would say, ‘I can still play basketball.'”
Haubenreiser-Meyers spearheaded a committee of colleagues, former players and alumni who launched the first Sully Shuffle 5K in 2009 to raise money for Parkinson’s research, despite being warned by Sullivan’s daughter that her dad would never go for it. Until the pandemic paused the 5K in 2020, the Sully Shuffle Foundation raised over $230,000 for Parkinson’s research.
“As long as the money raised went to Parkinson’s research,” Haubenreiser-Meyers said. “It kind of became medicine for Sully. Having this event and being able to see former students, athletes, co-workers and friends was a mental boost for him every year. He gave all the participants a high five when they crossed the finish line. It meant a lot to him that the community came out to raise awareness for Parkinson’s disease.”
As Parkinson’s began to catch up with him, Sullivan was kept going by his grandchildren — Mason, Rosie, Caitlin and Chloe — playing games with them, making funny faces, and basking in their presence while spoiling them with pizza and chocolate malts.
“Even in the last couple of years when Parkinson’s started taking its toll, when someone called he’d muster up the strength just to say, ‘I’m fine, I’m doing good,'” his daughter recalled. “He never wanted attention. With the amount of kids he taught and coached, he felt connected to everybody. He was humble.”
In addition to his immediate family and grandchildren, Sullivan leaves three sisters, Nancy (Ken) Rossow, Janet (Butch) Tornabeni, and Gwen (the late Leo) Koszulinski; his sister-in-law Fran (the late Wayne) Bailey, and brothers-in-law John (Laura) Buckels and Larry (Sue) Buckels; daughter-in-law Cheryl Sullivan, and son-in-law Steve Annel.
Sullivan was preceded in death by his parents, Eugene and Doris; his in-laws David and Mary Buckels; and a son, Danny Sullivan.
Visitation for Skip Sullivan will take place from 2 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, at Thompson-Kuenster Funeral Home, 5570 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn. Attendees are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing.
The funeral Mass is set for 9:15 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, from Thompson-Kuenster to St. Gerald Church, 9310 S. 55th Court, Oak Lawn, at 10 a.m.