The Passing of Richard Sullivan: The End of an Era in the Garden State

The first commissioner of the state DEP was the father of the environmental movement in New Jersey -- and a hero to many

Richard Sullivan
This is a tribute to Richard Sullivan by a writer who worked with and knew the commissioner throughout his career.

Very early yesterday morning, the environmental community of New Jersey and the region lost a gentle giant of a man and a genuine hero.

For the many thousands of people whose lives he touched directly, as well as the millions of people whose lives he affected for the better, Richard Sullivan was an incredible leader and role model. His career and life were inextricably intertwined with the significant environmental progress that has been made since the first Earth Day in 1970. To many of us, he was indeed the father, if not the patron saint, of the environmental movement here in the Garden State.

After Gov. William Cahill signed into law a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Thomas H. Kean that created the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Richard was the obvious choice to be its first commissioner. As the administrator of the water pollution and air pollution programs in the Department of Health at the time of his appointment, he was an experienced manager who was equal to the task of creating and overseeing this new superagency charged with both pollution control and natural resource management.

Richard gathered a stalwart group of talented folks that included the likes of Helen Fenske, Lewis Goldshore, and Tom O’Neill, and so began the age of the environment in New Jersey politics and policy.

The DEP grew rapidly in those early years, with many landmark environmental laws enacted in quick succession that fleshed out its responsibilities as a unique regulatory agency. Often sponsored by Assemblyman Kean, those enactments included the Solid Waste Management Act, the Coastal Wetlands Act, and the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act.

In many ways, Richard set the tone and style of this new agency. A quiet, humble, and apolitical man by nature, he practiced the now seemingly lost art of listening respectfully to friends and foes alike, and he had a sincere passion for making pragmatic, science-based decisions. Under his gentle yet astute leadership, the fledgling agency flourished.

Richard would serve four years as the first commissioner of the DEP, being replaced by David Bardin after William Cahill lost his bid to be renominated in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1973. Yet his role as an environmental leader was only beginning.

Sullivan would go on to serve as trusted advisor and friend to each and every one of his successors, as well as a mentor and a role model for numerous other public and nonprofit environmental leaders. His broad expertise, his humility and willingness to be a resource for others, and his ability to treat even unreasonable people with the utmost respect have all contributed to the civility of our discourse, and ultimately, the wisdom of our decisions on environmental policies that protect all citizens of New Jersey.

Long after he left DEP, Richard made his mark in so many ways on our environment. In fact, there is probably no area within DEP’s expansive jurisdiction — and virtually no significant environmental issue that I can think of — where Richard did not made a significant and lasting contribution. In particular, however, I would have to note his leadership in setting the initial maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for public water supplies as Chairman of the Safe Drinking Water Institute, his Holy Grail-like search for safe radioactive waste sites, and his legendary leadership as Chairman of the Pinelands Commission. In each of these roles, he continued to teach us how to make sound decisions — as well as how to co-exist even while dealing with the controversial stuff of environmental issues.

But I would have to say that his mentoring of so many of the next generation of wonderful environmental leaders — including his own daughter Martha Sullivan Sapp, who currently serves as the administrator of the Green Acres Program — is definitely his true legacy. Indeed, there are few environmental leaders who do not trace a good deal of their insight and abilities to Richard’s sage advice and counsel. He taught us all that environmental decisions can and should be made based on sound science, with respect for differing opinions, and with due regard for the rights of both current and future generations.

I was privileged to know Richard as a friend and a mentor. Through each stage in my own career, he was always there willing to help with advice and support. I have sometimes stated when introducing him at conferences or other events that we should all want to be Richard Sullivan when we grow up. His life and career from young administrator to senior statesman is something that we would all do well to emulate.

I shall miss Richard dearly, and I can only hope that the civility, respect, and reliance on sound science that he practiced so fervently will not pass away with him.