October 24, 2023 was an evening to remember at 800 Clapboardtree Street. The Xaverian theater was packed with students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni eager to be present for An Evening with John J. Sullivan ’77. The air was buzzing with anticipation and whispers of “Is that him?” as Ambassador Sullivan (now retired) sat in his front row seat, flanked by six current students ranging from eighth to twelfth grade. Following a brief introduction from Social Studies Department Chair, Mr. Peter Ball ’10, Joshua Barry ’24 took the stage to serve as moderator for a student-led panel discussion with the Ambassador.
To understand the full scope of the night and its inspiration, we need to rewind to the summer of 2023 and an idea that was proposed by Ambassador Sullivan himself, a then newly minted member of Xaverian’s Board of Trustees; he offered to come speak to the Xaverian community about his work. This was an opportunity too good to turn down. Ambassador John J. Sullivan ’77 has made a career as a public servant and is widely respected across the political spectrum. He has held prominent roles in both Republican and Democratic administrations, perhaps most notably serving as the United States Deputy Secretary of State from May of 2017 - December of 2019 and most recently as the United States Ambassador to Russia from February of 2020 - September of 2022.
Xaverian Principal Dr. Michael Nicholson, P ’29 quickly convened a faculty and staff committee with the aim of creating a student panel to conduct a public forum with the Ambassador. It was important that the students, Dr. Nicholson noted, “be involved in different events and activities on campus, representing the diversity and richness of our student population.” The administration wanted students to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share the stage with a fellow Hawk whose professional impact has been felt around the world. The students conducted themselves with maturity and poise, and the event went off without a hitch. This was thanks in part to the stellar performance of student moderator Josh Barry who kept the tempo of the night flowing. “This was the biggest public speaking event I’ve ever done,” says Barry. “I had to practice a bunch at my house and I’m sure the neighbors weren’t too happy about my super loud voice,” he jokes.
Sophomore panelist Beckett Delleo comments that sharing the stage with the Former Ambassador was “surreal” and that the experience went by in a flash. “I think that everyone would have listened to Ambassador Sullivan’s experiences for another hour, or even longer,” he adds. Beckett, a veteran of Xaverian’s Hawk News student broadcast, settled his nerves almost immediately upon taking his place on stage. “I just tried to find the few empty seats and convince myself there weren’t many people there...even though it was packed,” he recalled.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the opportunity to submit a question to Ambassador Sullivan was extended to the entire faculty, staff, and student population. Of the hundreds of questions received, many focused on issues like the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, and what it was really like to go face-to-face with Vladmir Putin. However, some provided more insight into Sullivan himself, focusing on his day-to-day life, such as his favorite high school lunch (a bologna sandwich), his dream job (CIA director or Red Sox bullpen catcher), and the Xaverian value he finds most important in his life (humility).
While An Evening with John J. Sullivan ’77 covered a wide range of difficult topics impacting our world today, it was common for Mr. Sullivan to interject some of his signature humor, a welcome way to lighten the mood surrounding serious issues. “Comparing Putin to Whitey Bulger...the way that he put that was very cool. It was a relatable first-person perspective on what he [Putin] is really like,” says Josh.
Panelist Jonathan Pinelli ’24 found Ambassador Sullivan’s insights to be a refreshing change from what he calls the “dehumanized and prideful” messaging prevalent in modern politics. “It was really beneficial to see someone so knowledgeable, personable, and humble,” he adds. Jonathan’s fellow panelist Isaiah Nkata ’27 summed up the experience best, and he did it in just one word: “perfect.”