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Interview with Sally Sullivan, July 11, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Sally Sullivan, July 11, 2002
July 11, 2002
Sally Sullivan discusses her career and life in this oral history interview. Dr. Sullivan came to UNCW as a lecturer in the English department in the fall of 1977. She was soon promoted and taught in the English department for 23 years, retiring as an associate professor. Dr. Sullivan discusses her academic fields of interest in 19th century British literature, creative writing, poetry and contemporary Southern literature. Dr. Sullivan recounts the history of the department, as she was a faculty member when the department first began offering the M.A. and the M.F.A. degrees and when Creative Writing and English separated into two departments.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Sullivan, Sally Interviewer: Lack, Adina Date of Interview: 7/1/2002 Series: Voices of UNCW Length: 45 minutes

Lack: Good afternoon. We’re here in the UNCW archives. My name is Adina Lack and I’m the archivist. I’m interviewing for our Voices of UNCW Oral History Program Dr. Sally Sullivan.

Lack: Can you please state your name.

Sullivan: Well, I’m Sally Sullivan, as you said, and I’m happy to be here, Adina.

Lack: I’m happy to meet you. Dr. Sullivan, what department were you in when you worked here.

Sullivan: I was in the department of English. I came in the fall of ’77 to the university here.

Lack: That was my next question. What was your position there?

Sullivan: Well I was hired as a lecturer at the last minute. I really took the place of someone else who had been a lecturer here and she had suddenly gotten a job with the government. There was nobody to teach her classes for the day after Labor Day. The courses had just started off. I think they had had one meeting, I believe. Dr. Dodson was chair at the time.

I called looking for a job thinking well I probably wouldn’t have much chance and then he said, well if you can be down here the day after tomorrow and I said okay. I was in Kenansville at the time. I had been teaching at James Sprunt Community College.

Lack: You were hired as a lecturer part time?

Sullivan: As a lecturer full time. And then I became regular faculty and I retired July 1, 2000. It will be two years this July, as an associate professor of English here. I forgot what year I was actually put on tenure track, 1980 or something like that.

Lack: Was the department at that time combined creative writing and English.

Sullivan: Yes it was, the separation happened just a few years ago. There really was no creative writing department. That was created during the chairmanship of Bob Bond and that might have been about in 1980-81. But I had published some poetry and written some short stories and published them so I taught writing when that started up in later years. I’ve forgotten what year I began teaching poetry. I think when Philip Gerard became chairman of the creative writing.

Lack: One thing we do here in archives is we collect the scholarship and writings of all faculty and retired faculty, so after the meeting I’d be really interested to find out what you wrote. We have some, I know we have some things by you, but I’d like to get some more. Going back a little bit further, where were you born?

Sullivan: Well, that was a curious thing. My father and mother are from Columbus, Georgia, and they somehow ended up shortly after their marriage--because my father had gone to veterinarian school at Auburn--he had to repay the government for the program. He used to be able to do that, and his first assignment was in Nebraska.

So it was really strange, my place of birth is Omaha, Nebraska and I’ve never even been near the place except then. I think I have forgotten how old I was when they left there, but something like about a year old or something like that or maybe 15 months.

Lack: And then where did you grow up?

Sullivan: Various places, but they moved from there to Fayetteville, I think. My dad got a position with a veterinarian in Fayetteville and then he shortly built his own hospital in Durham. This was a turbulent time in history and the Second World War came along. So we moved. I didn't really finish growing up in North Carolina. It was primarily North Carolina and Georgia.

My parents came back to Asheboro to retire so North Carolina has been my home. I can relate to the song. I think it’s a favorite place of a lot of people for anytime they want to come back.

Lack: Where did you go to school then after high school?

Sullivan: Well I went to the University of Texas, that’s where we happened to be when I was two years in high school there in Fort Worth. I started out at Texas and then I went to Colorado College for summer school and liked it. I stayed there a semester and then I sort of quit school for a while, just didn't know what I wanted to do.

Then I didn't go back to school until 10 years later when I had two children and my marriage had broken up. I went to Greensboro to UNC to finish my degree there. I ended up staying there for 10 years. I finished the Bachelor’s and did the Master’s and the doctorate, all at UNC-Greensboro.

Lack: It’s a really great department.

Sullivan: Yes, and having the two children, it was difficult for me to think of moving around so we stayed put there and I loved it. It’s a beautiful city.

Lack: Found your way here. How is it that you came to Wilmington?

Sullivan: Well, just as I say, I was teaching and I’d been there for a couple of years. I finished my doctorate, my dissertation, the last version of it after I got a position there. I really wanted to go somewhere else when I finished the degree. I lived in Kinston and commuted the first year which was way too difficult.

By then, I just had one child at home, it was just too much. Then I moved to Kenansville and it was rather restrictive and different from any kind of environment I’d been in. I really wanted some place that was, for one, a university rather than just a community college and a place that afforded a bit more in terms of extracurricular interests, pursuits. I felt a bit stymied there. So that’s how I ended up here as it was not too far from Kenansville and I heard about the university. It had a great reputation even then although it was very young.

Lack: So when you called Dr. Dodson, were you living here?

Sullivan: I was in Kenansville and I had to get myself packed up and moved in two days and I did. I started teaching the Tuesday after Labor Day.

Lack: In 1977. That’s a good story. What did you teach?

Sullivan: Well, I taught primarily literature courses and of course, we all taught freshman composition. The department was very, very small then. Let’s see, that year Dr. Veit came and Margaret Parrish and a man named Steve Carter, were three new faculty members who had been hired the regular way and not just calling up looking for a job like me. They were hired on tenure track at that time.

There were those three and they pretty much added a third to the existing faculty because I believe there was just Dr. Corbett, Pearsall, Jim Collier, Tom McCall, Rosselet, Foushee. I’m trying to think. Dr. Corbett had been the chair for years and then Dr. Dodson was hired and he’d only been chair I guess for a year or so. How many is that? Only about seven.

Then they got these three new people because that place was growing by leaps and bounds. Three young people, and then they got me to take the place of this lecturer that they had had and her name right now escapes me. I did meet her and I liked her so much and hated that she was leaving.

Lack: But that’s what afforded the opening. It’s funny how that works out. You see somebody you like.

Sullivan: Yes, we really hit it off. She was very nice.

Lack: By 1977, the place was growing a lot. Where was the English department?

Sullivan: The English department then was in the building I think that’s called Kenan Hall, not the auditorium, but where the fine arts department is now, the chair of fine arts. I go over there because I’m currently taking piano lessons from Barry Salwen. I never did used to go back in there. But the offices were upstairs in that building. Everybody was there. Then when we came, there was no space so new people, I don’t know if Dick Veit was over there or not.

I remember that Margaret Parrish and I shared an office up here in the library. In fact, my goodness, it was probably…this is part of the new building, isn’t it? Okay, we were in the old part just down the way. You would come up the stairs is how you’d come in. So really my office was not very far from where I’m sitting right now, just down the way.

Lack: We still actually have some faculty members who have offices up here.

Sullivan: Yes, there were several of us that had offices here.

Lack: Do you remember some important events either in your department or in the university from the time that you were there? You were there for a while, over 20 years.

Sullivan: Yes, I think probably for me one of the things that I remember is when we did finally have a kind of creative writing program, this was a big thing, something very exciting. Of course, so many changes occurred. We were always having to have these terrible committees to redo the curriculum and study our program and change things. But it was all very exciting because what happened was that yearly, you would come back to campus and it had changed drastically, one or two or three new buildings and new roads.

You couldn't get into your building or whatever. It was really a wonderfully exciting place to be because it did change so rapidly. Of course after Brooks, we had Bob Byington was chair, then Michael Wentworth and John Stokes for a while, then we got a new chair, Phil Furia. While he was here, another big thing happened and that was the separation of creative writing from the English department and Mark Cox came on as chair of that program. I think Phil became acting chair of that department.

Lack: Yes, that would be great if you could talk about that. I guess there were a lot of strong feelings one way or the other about that separation.

Sullivan: I felt rather sad about it, of course, kind of having one foot in each side of it. I did have my Ph.D. in 19th century British literature, well, I did my dissertation on Lawrence, but I was basically in the romantic areas. Yes, for me I just hated that, but I think really it was better, I suppose, in the long run because I think of how things have grown, just the sheer numbers of people who are majors and wanted to be in creative writing.

It was so hard to handle all of that stuff. I don’t know. I’m sure it has worked out to be much better. This only happened, you know, about four years ago. I’m trying to think. See I’ve been retired two years. I think it had only been done a couple of years when I retired. So it’s hard for me to say how it has worked out. But up until I left, I felt as if it were probably going to be a very good thing and I hope it has been.

Lack: There was a time I think when Dr. Dodson was chair of MFA program.

Sullivan: That’s true because they were, well, how did that work, I guess Dr. Furia had wanted to quit doing that or something. Maybe Dr. Dodson started out as being the acting chair to begin with. I suppose that’s maybe what happened. Then they had to have a search and then hire somebody. He had helped with the MA program and been director of it at one time so he knew how to do all of that kind of thing. It was very kind of him to take that on because that’s a very big job.

Lack: What was that like when you started to have graduate students?

Sullivan: Well that was, oh gosh, how many years ago, quite a few. Well that was very exciting for the department. I enjoyed teaching a couple of courses in the graduate department and southern literature became my avocation, my love after romantic literature. I think that that added quite a bit to our department to have the students there who, you know, are just so full of energy and exciting interest.

I’m quite sure, life was fine before. It was a great place to teach just with the undergraduate students, but they added a great deal.

Lack: What were the students like during your time here?

Sullivan: Oh gosh, well of course they change because that’s the name of the game and life is change. Basically I think they’re just about the same as they always were. They still have hearts and souls and interests that are I guess humanitarian, a lot of them. They still care about the world and all, but they did become a little bit more, I think a little bit more independent than they were when I first started teaching here.

I think that they became more sophisticated, more just independent. That was good to see that they somehow seemed more, many of them anyway, more sophisticated. Sometimes I think they seemed a bit more not as respectful of the institution as they seemed to be before. Still I think just very bright people, just getting along and contributing a lot to this world.

Lack: What do you think of how Wilmington has changed since you’ve been here?

Sullivan: Well that’s amazing, isn’t it? Goodness sakes. Well I wish they had kind of been able to get together a planning commission or something years ago to foresee what was going to happen because it has grown just like the school has, by such tremendous numbers, that it wasn’t prepared. It’s been kind of harrowing to try to get around town for many years now because of that.

I think there was no kind of long range planning going on for street construction or housing or zoning, but it’s been wonderful too, to have all these people come in. They’ve added so much. Many of the people coming are from other areas of the country. Gosh, the population, the ethnic groups here have changed so much. We have so many more Hispanics and Orientals and that just adds so much to what is available to us. Like for example, the simplest thing, in terms of restaurants and eating and all these cultures coming in have changed the kind of offerings that we have.

Lack: I agree. I like the fact that it’s bigger, but I wish it could have happened without so many traffic problems.

Sullivan: You just have to be patient, although it’s characterized by a great many of the drivers’ lack of patience and they speed too much here. I understand we have the most automobile accidents per capita of any city in North Carolina, and North Carolina itself has one of the highest rates in the country and that is why our automobile insurance is so much. At least that is what I was told.

Lack: I can believe that.

Sullivan: Yes, there’s lots of little accidents around (laughter).

Lack: Well you’ve mentioned some names. Who are some of the people that you worked for or worked with who were important to you or influential?

Sullivan: I think of my friend, well two people especially, Michael Wentworth and Lewis Walker and Dr. Dodson, Bob Byington was quite a force in the department. I really enjoyed my friendship with Mike and Louis and with Dr. Parrish. I certainly enjoyed knowing Jo Ann Seiple. She was our chair also for several years. I forgot at what point she came in, I think after John Stokes was kind of interim chair.

Jo Ann was a wonderful chairperson. So was Dick Veit, and Chris Gould was. I enjoyed him so much. I feel as if really everybody that we had contributed a great deal to the department.

Lack: That’s really lucky. That’s probably reflected in the strength of the department.

Sullivan: Yes, every single person was quite wonderful at their job, I feel.

Lack: Are there are people you can think of that would be good for me to interview from that list? Some of these people are still working so it might be hard to track them down.

Sullivan: I believe, well certainly you should talk to Dr. Corbett who would be able to tell you a whole lot about the past history of the school because she was chairman before this campus even existed, and I don’t know where it was. It was somewhere downtown I believe.

Lack: She was in the Isaac Bear Building.

Sullivan: You need to talk with her. I think she would be a great person to talk with and then of course Margaret Parrish is a darling person who has just retired I think. Then of course Michael Wentworth is still teaching and head of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies [program], so he’s really kind of busy, but maybe you in the future could get a great perspective on him since he was also chair of the department.

Then Lewis Walker, but Lewis I think, I don’t think he’s about to retire yet. He’s still teaching and he has a great perspective on things. Anyhow I feel as if I was very fortunate to end up here and to be a part of this school and having a career.

Lack: What part of university life did you like the best? Was it teaching?

Sullivan: I think it was and what’s along with that that I always enjoyed so much was advising. My advisees that I would see twice a year. I think the teaching itself I enjoyed the most.

Lack: The administrative work or the committees you weren’t so fond of that?

Sullivan: I didn't mind that. I was chair of the Writing Place under Jo Ann for a while. I loved being on committees with people. I was on many search committees and that’s a big job. I enjoyed that because we got to meet interesting people and show them around and get to know them, whether or not they ended up here. I liked committees because I liked to get to know my colleagues in that capacity. There’s some that I didn't know as well as others.

Lack: Were you on a search committee that any people that you hired that are still here?

Sullivan: Oh yes, Keith Newlin was one. I was on the committee when Mark Cox was hired I think. Now a lot of the people that were on the committees for creative writing and some of them left, like Steve Sher--[inaudible], Kathleen Homy-- [inaudible]. But Michael White is still here, I was on the committee that hired him. There’s so many people now over there. Oh, well I think I was on the committee that hired Rebecca Lee who was in creative writing.

Lack: I know the names and have met some of them and I hope to continue to meet more in my capacity here as university archivist. During the break, we were talking some about the discipline of English and how it’s changed over the years. Well to speak from a personal level, what were your scholarly interests when you started your career and did they evolve?

Sullivan: Oh yes, they changed a lot. Of course I did my dissertation on D. H. Lawrence and I was interested in him quite a bit, but I was worn out with the dissertation and glad to just finally give that up. I have been writing a lot and publishing on him, so that’s what I started doing a whole lot of when I came here.

Then I developed quite an interest in my fellow southern writers, many of whom I had met at UNC-G like Fred Chappell and Kay Strickenmeyer, Shelby Stevenson and a whole bunch of people here in North Carolina. I just started reading southern literature by the older southern writers, but the current ones too because I knew them…Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and all these people. There are just too many to mention everybody.

You can hardly keep up with southern literature these days. You can’t anyway. That began to interest me a whole lot. Then I became a member of what was called the Study Group that John Clifford led and we got involved in reading some theory and I got interested quite a bit to some degree, although I only did a couple of papers having to do with [inaudible] _______ ideas. I think I did a paper using some of her theories in analysis of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway.

That sort of spilled over into this interest into belonging to this feminist colloquia which I found very interesting to discuss. I wasn’t really that into theory per se and did not really enjoy some of the theorists we read, but others I did enjoy discussing, especially as I said, there were a couple like Cixous and Julia Kristeva that I enjoyed reading.

Lack: So when you gave the papers, you gave papers to the group or did you publish some papers?

Sullivan: Well I think the one on Mrs. Dalloway was one I delivered. Then I did one on Alice Adams, her novel, it’ll come to me. That was the last one I read before I retired, down in New Orleans. I sort of used especially a book called The Feminization of West Romance, basically the idea of the feminist, the heroine instead of the male. That paradigm sort of fit what happened in her novel.

Lack: You mentioned that nowadays it really is imperative to know theory I suppose. If you want to be a Ph.D. student, can you imagine being a Ph.D. student now and not really learning theory?

Sullivan: No, no. I’m quite sure there’s no such thing. It’s just a given.

Lack: You were kind of lucky that you could do what you liked including some creative writing and publishing in literary journals.

Sullivan: Then I did a couple of textbooks I wrote and one was Freshman Composition, it was a rhetoric reader so that was interesting.

Lack: How did you like teaching freshman composition because I think it used to be that people didn't like doing it, but now it’s become so important.

Sullivan: That was really I think a big part of my life, has been devoted to teaching freshman composition. I really loved it. It’s changed a lot, but still basically it’s a course where people can explore themselves because they do it for writing. It’s really the only way you can, is to write it down.

Lack: They can’t say they don’t know the subject.

Sullivan: Yes, it’s very exciting.

Lack: How have you enjoyed your retirement?

Sullivan: I’ve been very busy. I took up playing tennis again, I’m playing the piano. I practice every day and I usually play tennis every day. So that’s been a great deal of fun. I have enjoyed very much being part of a program called EARS, it’s Eastern Area Reading Services where volunteers read the paper, the newspaper, to people who are blind or cannot read for themselves.

We do this in studios that I think are rented by North Carolina’s Human Resources. This is down at the studio where WHQR is. I do that. I just stay pretty busy. I have a couple of committees I’m on at the church I attend, Church of the Servant. I have an awful lot.

Lack: It seems like a lot of faculty who retire do stay around here because it is a nice place to retire.

Sullivan: Yes, yes, I forgot my reading group. They meet this Sunday. Book club, it’s really just fun. It’s allowed me to enjoy just some down time and I’m growing flowers which I love to do.

Lack: That sounds good and it sounds like you still come around the university.

Sullivan: Yes, I used to come up here more often that I have lately. It’s been about a year since I have been playing the piano again and doing tennis. I used to come to the library quite often. In fact, I stopped down there and used the internet before I came up for a few minutes. I’d like to come more often. It’s like crossing College Road is like crossing the Rubikan or something. It’s very scary. I used to bike, but just getting in the car even seems to be difficult. I’ll be doing that this fall and I may come over and see you.

Lack: Please do. The place continues to change. Do you notice changes every time you come around?

Sullivan: Yes, I do. Like I said, every summer I come back, I don’t recognize the place. I don’t know what they built this summer.

Lack: They did a groundbreaking for a new education building.

Sullivan: It’s not complete yet?

Lack: Oh no.

Sullivan: The financial conditions here are pretty bad, aren’t they. It’s too bad. It’s been a very sad thing.

Lack: We hope it improves.

Sullivan: I’m very worried. I need to drive over and see it and try to look around some more. I enjoy coming here.

Lack: During the break, you mentioned you have some positive feelings towards libraries.

Sullivan: Oh yes, I’ve always loved to go the library. I would check out the maximum number of books when I was younger that they would allow. I would go home and read them as fast as I could. I’d be back there the next day, that’s all I did was read and play the piano when I was young. I think most of the people I know who teach English would be just as happy doing something in the library as teaching English.

Lack: It is a natural…a lot of graduate students in library school had English as undergraduate and some of them had taught for a while. I can understand that. Did you encourage your students to use the library?

Sullivan: Oh yes.

Lack: That’s always good. We always like when professors do that.

Sullivan: Absolutely and in those days before electronics came along, I remember bringing students over to the library.

Lack: Now we run bibliographic instruction classes for the students in the computer lab and teach them about databases and search strategies. We hope it sinks in. It’s not the easiest thing to teach. I’m not directly involved in teaching, but my colleagues do.

Sullivan: It’s a whole different era, isn’t it. I’m quite sure a lot of the students that come here know far more about computers than I do. I can at least look up what I want to, but I don’t have an internet service at home. I just haven’t gotten into that. I’m too busy with other things and it would be, I feel, a waste of time.

Lack: If people need to reach you, they can phone you.

Sullivan: Or do the snail mail (laughter). I still love that. There’s something exciting about going to the mailbox and seeing a letter addressed to you. It’s just great.

Lack: I hope that doesn’t disappear forever. Sometimes I wonder.

Sullivan: I’ve got friends and we still write each other. It’s wonderful, not very many though. Most of them are into just e-mail. But I have a few that love to do that.

Lack: Well I would like to wrap things up unless you can think of anything else, any other stories of people you remember or certain incidents.

Sullivan: I can’t think of anything like falling on our faces (laughter).

Lack: Well I got some good information just about the life of the department and the university. It seems like the whole time you were here, it was just growing.

Sullivan: Just leaps and bounds.

Lack: It was slower and sleepier before you got here I think, in the early 70’s, late 60’s, it was still sleepy. I suppose I-40 really changed things.

Sullivan: That’s true. It’s been interesting to talk to you.

Lack: Well thank you, it’s been great having you here, Dr. Sullivan. I look forward to seeing you again.

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