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Joseph B. Sullivan, II
July 10, 1919~Oct. 27, 2017
There was a seismic shift in our universe Oct. 27, when Joseph B. Sullivan, II (Joe) called an end to his 98 years. A proud member of “The Greatest Generation” Joe was born in a sod house with the assistance of a midwife, a relieved mother, Sadie, and anxious father, Burt, on July 10, 1919, at the family homestead between Cheyenne Wells and Burlington, Colo.
As a child he attended the Waterville School, a classic one-room school, where he learned to recite works from authors like William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. Growing up in the 1930s Dust Bowl days he learned to shoot and was allocated three bullets or less a day for dinner. A hungry, growing lad, he became an excellent shot. Rabbit was the frequent cuisine, but not his favorite.
One of the most dangerous moments in his life came when he was 11-years-old. On March 26, 1931, the wind began to pick up and the choice was made for Joe, his brother Bob and their school teacher Miss Yost to make their way to open up the Waterville schoolhouse for children who might be trapped in what was quickly becoming a spring blizzard. On their way to the school house, their Model T became stuck in a drift. Leaving the car, they made their way through the deadly winds in search of an abandoned shack. They had only three matches between them. The first two failed, but the third finally started a fire in an old cook stove. There they waited out the blizzard by tearing off wallboard and burning it. A bird and a rabbit huddled in a corner of the shack froze to death. Their father, “Burt,” who was legally blind, went out in the blizzard using one of his trusted Belgian work horses as a shield to search for them. Because he was nearly blind, he had an uncanny sense of direction and ultimately found his sons and their teacher and led them to the school house thirty-six hours later. They did suffer some frost-bite, but survived one of the deadliest blizzards in Colorado history which claimed the lives of several children and the bus driver in the Towner school bus tragedy near Eads.
In the summer of ‘36 to escape the relentless drought, dust laden winds and tornados of the prairie, he cowboyed on the Yost/Green ranches in the Williams Fork country of Northwestern Colorado where he fell in love with the mountains and frequently enjoyed sage grouse, a meal that he found better than rabbit. He returned to the prairie the fall of ‘36 and moved from the homestead some 15 miles to Cheyenne Wells by himself, lived in a cook-shack, did his laundry, his school work, and fixed his own meals. He graduated from Cheyenne County High School in 1939.
Upon graduation he worked full time on the homestead, manning the transition from animal horsepower to mechanical horsepower, and learned the rapidly accelerating technology of the gasoline engine. On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he listened to the radio as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “A date which shall live in infamy.” Joe’s pathway was clear. He worked with his brother and father all night shucking corn so he could afford a bus ticket to Denver. Arriving in Denver on Dec. 8, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
He was briefly stationed at Chanute Air Field in Illinois where he met and fell in love with Claire Marie Obuchowski, a Chicago opera vocalist and model for Lane Bryant who entertained with the USO. His dream of becoming a fighter pilot was thwarted by freakish high blood pressure which he attributed to his passion to fly and as a result, he was transferred to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., where he taught airplane mechanics and quick engine change on B-17 bombers. He was later a crew chief on a B-17. Claire followed him to Biloxi and they were married on April 17, 1943, by the base chaplain. He was honorably discharged at the end of WWII.
The couple moved to Meeker after Joe’s discharge from military service and there he worked part time as a mechanic for Reg. Nichols Sales and Service. He gradually built up enough money to purchase his first John Deere tractor, a Model “D” from L.E. Idol and Company. He leased land on a sharecropping basis and began wheat farming in the summers, continuing to mechanic in the winters. At the peak of his farming operation, he farmed ground from 7 miles east of Meeker on the Meeker Dome, then south to the Petrolite and Fourteen Mile places of Agnes Hunt, Cuppy Sanderson and Carl Cox, to 18 miles west of Meeker for Sam Kinnamon near the White River and his home base in Josephine Basin consisting of the DeVoto, Finch, Ford and Cassidy farms. He maintained strong personal relationships with his landlords, cultivating their respect as well as their crops.
In 1961, he was elected to the Rio Blanco County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) committee which he served for 13 years as chairman. Later through HB 1041, he helped create, with David Smith, the Rio Blanco County Utility Corridor Control Commission, working to locate gas and electric utility lines in serviceable corridors while preserving the best agricultural land.
Joe was elected to the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee and the Colorado Association of Wheat Grower Board of Directors in the early 1960s. He served as president of both organizations and was on the board of directors of Great Plains Wheat and the National Association of Wheat Growers where he pioneered global trade in grain, primarily through Public Law 480 known as the “Food for Peace Program.” He received the “E” award for his work in global trade, given to him by President Kennedy in 1962.
In 1976, he was appointed to the new Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board by Governor Richard Lamm, where he helped establish and strengthen Colorado’s mined land reclamation regulations. He served several times as the board’s chairman.
In 1978, as a result of his growing prestige in the agricultural and mining industries, he was asked to participate in a Western Water Round Table by President Jimmy Carter, where he argued against transmountain water diversions and the importance of preserving Colorado’s instream flows for critical alluvial valley riparian zones.
His personal life took a rough turn when his beloved wife Claire passed away from cancer in 1981. Joe was her primary caretaker and nurse, ensuring Claire could live and paint landscapes, still lifes and portraits, in her home until her death.
In 1986, he leased out the farming and ranching operations to his daughter Kathleen and her husband, Reed Kelley, and shifted much of his attentions to the historical resources in Rio Blanco County. In the mid-1980s he was elected to the board of directors of the Rio Blanco County historical society where he worked with buddies Elige Joslin and later Dr. David Steinman for the preservation and development of a public overlook of the Milk Creek Battleground hoping to eventually create a narrative of the complex and heartbreaking conflict between the Ute Tribe and the Federal Government. In 1986, he championed the Northern Ute’s request to build a monument honoring their dead at the battle site, making it the first site in US history honoring the war dead of an Indian tribe, by an Indian tribe.
In the early 1990s, he wrote a script detailing the events surrounding the Oct. 13, 1896, Meeker Bank Robbery and directed its reenactment during the Range Call Fourth of July celebrations. Keen on historical accuracy, he went so far as to push the reenactment on the site of the actual bank robbery and enlisted descendants of the town’s people who shot the robbers to act in the production, portraying their relatives.
Joe was an avid horseman, and particularly enjoyed working cattle on the ranch. He broke and trained his last riding horse, a purebred Tennessee Walker he named Trigger, when he was 85.
He began a loving relationship with Ethel Starbuck in 1994, lasting until his death. They spent hours together on horseback riding a matched pair of strawberry roan Tennessee Walkers, Sugar and Spice, and they travelled to numerous places around the US, including a nostalgic trip to Keesler Field, where Joe was delighted to hear the tour-guide describe the men who trained mechanics for airfield operations as a group of “tough bastards.” He enjoyed demonstrating just how tough he was when he shook out a loop on a lariat and deftly fore-footed the tour guide. When Ethel entered the Walbridge Wing three years ago, he went nearly every day to visit her and enjoyed singing with Sam Stranathan on Wednesdays, and loved dancing with Ethel to the music of Johnny and Ginny Barton and John Kelley on Thursday evenings.
In early October this year, Joe went to Rifle with his son, Jay, pulled into the ATV/OHV dealership there where he spied a shiny, dark cherry-red CAN/AM single seater he purchased after spinning it around the parking lot a few times. He’d never had an ATV before. He enjoyed buzzing it around the ranch, exploring remote corners he hadn’t seen in decades.
Joe Sullivan never sat still a day in his life—even driving Doris Welle and Ethel out to the ranch to see fall colors the day before he suffered a heart attack.
“Lucky Joe” is survived by his love, Ethel Starbuck, and his beloved family—his daughter Kathleen and son-in-law Reed Kelley, his son Jay and daughter-in-law Kaye, grandsons Jason and Kyle, and Kyle’s wife Ashley and their son Grayson—Joe’s great grandson, nieces and nephews, and their children.
Memorial Services will be held this Saturday, Nov. 18, 2 p.m. at the Meeker United Methodist Church with a reception following. The service will be broadcast live on Facebook. Those who cannot attend may access the service by connecting with the Meeker UMC via Facebook.
Those wishing to honor Joe’s memory may donate to the Rio Blanco County Historical Society, P.O. Box 413, Meeker, Colo., 81641 and the family asks you to support the tremendous volunteer work of NODA—No One Dies Alone.