Voices of the Faithful: “Mother Sullivan”- Lillie B. Sullivan
When I think about going to my grandmother’s house as a little girl, I smell shoe polish, coffee, great northern beans, and caramel icing. The aroma, as well as the awareness, bring me to a place of total comfort and relaxation! These are the things which immediately come to mind when I think of visiting my grandparents in Huntsville’s Edmonton Heights community.
You see, Lillie B. Sullivan was one disciplined and committed soldier!!! Every weekend, “Grandma,” as I called her, would polish her shoes for work, she was a nurse. I saw more bottles of shoe polish than I could count, but she was meticulous about the white nursing shoes, stockings, white dresses and the colorful array of smocks she wore to the hospital daily. She’d make coffee every morning during the four o’clock hour for my grandfather, Burgess B. Sullivan, and herself. “Granddaddy” did not work due to severe alcoholism. They’d have coffee and chat a little and then off she’d go with her co-workers and ride to work. My grandmother did not drive. Most evenings upon her return home, one could most certainly expect a pot of beans and a pan of cornbread in the kitchen for dinner. Some nights there were other items like fried corn, turnip greens, and/or chicken-n-dumplings, but you could almost always count on beans and bread. Then, the cake!!!! She was beyond popular for her caramel cakes. Grandma baked and sold more than 500 cakes per year (80% of those in the 4th quarter, during the holiday seasons). An employee and a businessperson!
Though she possessed somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit, she was also an extreme giver! Anyone, family, friend, or stranger could show up at her home on any given night and get a hot, home cooked meal, a loving smile, and a little chatter about the goodness of God. She fed and sheltered many stray neighborhood animals just the same. It was as if the more she gave the more she had, because she never seemed to lack anything. It was so obvious she valued others, treated them as herself and cared very little about receiving anything in return, which is NOT always apparent from a “preacher’s kid”.
Born the third oldest of seven, to a Baptist preacher and strict Methodist mother on December 26, 1925, Lillie was drilled on lots of values and biblical principles. They grew up with meager resources, but knew the value of family, community, and education. Grandma loved school but had to work throughout the year to help tend cotton fields in Toney, AL for her dad, the late Rev. Walter Burwell. She graduated from A&M High School in 1943. She wasn’t sure about her career path before that time, but she knew that whatever she did with her life she wanted to help people. She also knew she could not pay for college. However, as destiny would have it, Lillie was afforded the opportunity to study nursing at Grady in Atlanta, GA immediately after graduation, as she learned that the government was providing a free education and monthly stipends for qualified applicants to study nursing due to the shortage of nurses at that time.
Lillie met the man she’d love forever while in high school and after his departure to go serve his country, a three year long courtship through letter writing was established and after his discharge from the army, he showed up in Atlanta with a ring and proposal, brought her back home to Alabama, and they married February 18, 1946. Lillie loved Burgess. She gave him nine children (Cheryl, Phyllis, Cynthia, Denise, Marva, Wayne, James, and Delano) cooked for him daily, and still loved, nurtured, and stayed with him once their union was tested with his addiction. When asked why, she’d say, “I did not just make a commitment to my husband, I made a commitment to the Lord.” And they remained together for 39 years until his death in 1985.
After returning to Alabama in 1947, Lillie was hired to work as a nurse at Huntsville Hospital where she worked for more than 40 years until she retired in 1988. She commenced her position in the annex, a small, separate portion of the hospital for blacks. She served many of those 40 years working in pediatrics, and was well known for her calm and gentle demeanor and kindness. Her service to Huntsville Hospital was especially recognized when she passed away in October 1998. A few days after her funeral, November 5, 1998 to be exact, the hospital’s Chaplain, CEO and other hospital administrators and staff held their own Memorial in her honor, where many testified of her service, leadership, and the impact she made on them, other employees, and patients. They presented the family with a plaque and created the Lillie B. Sullivan LPN of the Year Award for the LPN recognized for reflecting Lillie B. Sullivan’s personal and professional qualities. This award is given every year.
This recognition was well deserved for a nurse who worked 40 years for the same organization and never made more than $8/hour. I never heard her complain about work or home though she faced so many obstacles. I have no recollection of her allowing a life challenge deter her from living any differently from the way she believed she should live. I not only witnessed her love for husband and children, but also for her younger (adult) sister, who lived with her. She never walked or talked from the time she was born. She was handicapped and required around the clock care. Lillie maintained hired help by day while she worked, but still tended to her physical and emotional needs before going to work and after she returned home. Aunt Ruth was never mistreated, everyone followed my grandmother’s example of love towards her. Grandma would feed her and care for her just like a little child, as if she had not taken care of children all day at work.
If you think that’s it, just wait. Mother Sullivan as she was referred to at her Liberty Primitive Baptist Church served as a mother of her church for more than 50 years. She made the communion bread every month for as long as anyone could remember and the only services she missed on Wednesday nights and Sunday morning were due to an occasional change in her work schedule. Her church was a least a 30 minute drive from her home so again, she had to be chauffeured, and Louise along with others delighted themselves in providing her the transportation she needed. In fact, I never recall Grandma saying, “I don’t have a ride”. She was the most blessed and resourceful woman I knew while growing up. I was able to witness, first hand, that ingenuity, work ethic, unconditional love, service, leadership, and receive the blessings of dining with her and others several days a week. She was also the best cook I knew. A stranger in her home was only that once, most of them made her home their home after their first and place their feet under table countless times following. Her children and grandchildren were so accustomed to sharing her with the world. It was just that way!
Lillie passed away at age 72 and more than 2000 people attended her Home going Service to commemorate her life story. Even today, seventeen years after Lillie B. Sullivan was called to her heavenly home, people young and old are still talking about her life. I am just grateful to have had ample time to sit at the feet of greatness, and glean from her what God expects from us all, a life completely surrendered to Christ!
Written by Dr. Kresslyn Kelly-Ellis