When she passed away suddenly on October 25 at age 72, Christine Barr Sullivan left a large footprint and even larger shoes to fill.
“She was always on the move. If she hadn’t just started something new, she was thinking about what to do next,” said John Neely, her husband of many decades.
Her commitment to public service and her love affair with Salem are common threads in a multifaceted career. She started in Washington, D.C. as North Shore Congressman Michael Harrington’s Chief of Staff and then moved on to state government as Secretary of Consumer Affairs under Governor Michael Dukakis after earning a graduate degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Although familiar with Salem from her work with then Councilman Harrington, Sullivan had never lived there. After graduate school, she bought a house there, quickly becoming part of the fabric of the city, commuting to Boston for her job in state government.
Her first meeting with Neely was when he was working in the MA State Energy Office and she was asked to find someone to speak to a group of business people at a breakfast Councilman Harrington was hosting. “Christine introduced herself and said those fabulous words, ‘The Danish is over there,’” Neely said, adding with a chuckle that for some reason, nothing clicked between them with that first meeting.
The second time, however, Sullivan was in her state government position and needed help getting a new energy-related agency off the ground. She called Neely, who was then living in Colorado, did a phone interview and hired him. This time, a romance developed and the two married and Neely moved to Salem.
As their family grew, Sullivan’s focus shifted to a path that afforded her more flexibility and the ability to be a working mother. After starting Best of Salem magazine and launching a successful marketing and public relations firm, she found her niche with the Enterprise Center, the Salem State University (SSU) business incubator. (@EnterpriseCtr and facebook.com/EnterpriseCtr).
In 2002, soon after becoming CEO of the Enterprise Center, Sullivan invited Patricia Zaido, who had recently lost her husband, to lunch. Zaido had also just retired from the SSU faculty after a 37-year career where she served as Chair of the Theater Department and as the founding Executive Director of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts.
“She was telling me all the things she was doing with the Enterprise Center and I was enthused about it, ” Zaido recalled. “I was trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life.” Zaido became executive director of the Salem Partnership a short time after that lunch with Sullivan.
The Salem Partnership is a non-profit whose goal is to revitalize economic development in Salem with a close focus on the downtown district.
The two became fast friends and colleagues, working closely on many joint projects. “We went to five or six meetings a month together,” Zaido said. “We really got to know each other well.”
Eventually, they both became interested in Creative Economy, a new concept that recognizes the contribution people in the creative domain make to the economic development of a region. Both women got the reluctant agreement of their respective boards to explore the concept for Salem and the North Shore.
“I guess we were both doing a good enough job that they were willing to go along with us if we wanted to do this,” Zaido said with a laugh.
The two women brought their idea to the North Shore, co-founding the Creative Economy Association of the North Shore. (@ceanstweet and facebook.com/creative.economy) Not satisfied with just the North Shore, they decided to expand their reach and to have Salem host the first statewide Creative Economy conference.
Out of that conference, they eventually succeeded in getting legislation passed to create the Creative Economy Council. Although it was an uphill battle, the two were tenacious and persistent. “Christine would not take no for an answer,” Zaido said.
Sullivan served on many local boards, including the Salem YMCA, Northeast Arc, the Bentley Academy Charter School and the North Shore and Salem Chambers of Commerce.
“Christine was smart, funny and always motivated. She showed me the way in Salem and the North Shore, providing thought-provoking insights,” said Rinus Oosthoek, Executive Director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce. “She would never settle for the ordinary.”
When Sullivan retired in 2014, SSU and the Salem Chamber of Commerce established the Sullivan Education Fund to “continue and grow the extensive educational programs at the Enterprise Center, and to help entrepreneurs learn the skills to start and grow their businesses.”
“Christine was a unique and remarkable woman,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “It is truly difficult to imagine Salem without her positive, enthusiastic presence. Her commitment to this community and to our Commonwealth was deep and powerful, and her work changed so many lives for the better.”
Never ones to rest on their laurels, Sullivan and Zaido were in the midst of launching their latest project based on the concept of an “Age Friendly City” that was developed by the World Health Organization in 2010. They applied to the WHO network and Salem was accepted, the first city on the North Shore and only the third in MA to achieve that status.
After “a lot of hard work”, they developed a 72-page strategic plan that is scheduled to go to the WHO for certification next week. The plan identifies areas where Salem is strong now and areas where it needs improvement.
“We now have to implement it,” Zaido said and paused before adding, “But we have to do it without Christine.”