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Hes not just a teacher

Student favorite Howard Sullivan retires after 33 years in classrooms
by: Chase Allgood, Howard “Butch” Sullivan, who brings as much personality to his job as he brings smarts, is retiring this year after more than three decades on the job.

Five days before graduation, and the clock is ticking.

Seniors stream in and out of Howard Sullivan's room on the second floor at Forest Grove High School, asking him to sign forms acknowledging they've paid all their fees and returned all their books to the library so they can walk with their class on Saturday.

They tell him funny stories about their parents and pepper him with questions related to a flurry of activities planned for their last formal week of classes.

What time does commencement start? Do I have to go to Baccalaureate? Can I still get tickets to the senior breakfast?

Sullivan interrupts what he's doing to tend to each student's concern, whether it's a case of nerves over a grade on their final project in his

Advanced Placement Government class or confusion about where to pick up a cap and gown for this weekend's commencement ceremony at Hillsboro's Liberty High School.

Every one of them seems to understand that opportunities to catch the man's ear, at least in the official sense, are waning.

Next year, the hallways at the high school will no longer resound with the familiar raspy voice Howard 'Butch' Sullivan first introduced to students in Forest Grove more than three decades ago, when he signed on as a history and geography teacher at Neil Armstrong Middle School.

After four years at NAMS, 14 years at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School and 15 years at FGHS, the man many students simply know as 'Sullivan' is retiring, along with his signature mane of white, wavy hair, his retro eyeglasses, his Hawaiian shirts and the can-do attitude he's imprinted on two generations of kids in town.

'It's going to be different,' Sullivan, 55, said Monday during a rare hour and a half recounting memories of a career in public education that'll come to a close on June 15, the last day of the 2011-12 school year. 'Sixty percent of my life has been spent delivering instruction to the students of Forest Grove.'

Surfing and sitting

So far, Sullivan doesn't have a detailed set of plans for how he'll spend his leisure time after he clears his desk in Room 2306. He knows he'll babysit his nine-month-old grandson, Brady Holland, at least once a month. And that he'll learn to surf, a throwback to his days growing up in southern California.

'It's one of the things on my bucket list,' said Sullivan, breaking into a wide grin. 'I'm gonna buy a long board and a wet suit and head to the Oregon coast.'

He'll also take a summertime trip with his wife LaDonna, an accounting assistant and a Forest Grove native he met while he was a student at Pacific University, playing baseball alongside pal Brad Bafaro, now the school district's special education director.

The couple married in 1979.

'I'm a pretty lucky man,' Sullivan noted. 'I've got a wife who allowed me to pour myself into my job teaching kids all these years,' including the ones when their children, Darci and Dylan, attended FGHS.

Mentor to hundreds

Sullivan has made it a point to keep as many kids as possible from failing during his long career in the local school system. Whether it's an eyeball-to-eyeball talking-to, a pat on the back or an extra 15 minutes listening to the recitation of a senior speech, he's been there for his students.

Just ask Josh Schneider, one of 13 valedictorians at FGHS this year.

'He's more than a teacher. He's a friend,' said Schneider, who Sullivan pushed to try out for the drama department's play, Arsenic and Old Lace, last fall. 'A lot of times we just sit and talk about music.'

What impresses Schneider about Sullivan is his ability to admonish, advise and encourage - sometimes nearly simultaneously - while always maintaining a relationship with students based on mutual respect.

'Three days ago I was practicing my senior speech, and he pointed out several things I could do better, but in a really kind way,' said Schneider. 'He always says he wants his grave stone to say, 'He was a nice man.' He makes me want to be a nice man, too.'

Fork in the road

Lessons Sullivan learned early in life from his parents, and while attending private Catholic schools in Inglewood, Calif., have stuck with him. He's tried to pass them on to his students over the years.

John Seeley, his baseball coach at Oceanside's Mira Costa Community College in the late 1970s, taught him a doozy.

'One day he called me down to his office,' Sullivan recalled. 'I'd been dogging it in practice, and Coach Seeley knew it.'

The coach told Sullivan, then 19, that because of his lack of effort that week, he wouldn't be suiting up with the team when the Spartans headed out on a five-game road trip that weekend. Instead of taking his usual place on the field, he'd be watching the action from the stands.

'It was a fork in the road for me,' Sullivan said. He could have turned in his uniform and quit. Instead, he accepted his mentor's rebuke as truth and worked harder.

'You can't always take the easy route,' he noted, adding that his decision to take his lumps morphed into a life-changing turn of events just a year or so later, when Seeley greased the skids for his protégé to get into Pacific.

'Five of us from Mira Costa came up at the same time,' Sullivan said. 'We had the opportunity to play ball here, and I earned my undergrad degree in education here.'

The rest is history, including a turnabout story Sullivan related about a disciplinary situation he handled at Neil Armstrong years ago.

'We used to call all our parents on Tuesday nights to give them updates on how their children were doing in class. There was this one kid who was causing trouble at school,' Sullivan said. That very day, he witnessed the student's compassionate response to a female classmate who had tripped and spilled her load of books across the floor.

'He went over, helped her up and made her feel better, because she had embarrassment all over her face,' said Sullivan. 'When I called his home that evening, his mother said, 'What did he do now?,' expecting bad news.

'I was able to tell her how proud I was of her kid, and that I knew he was going to do just fine.'

The one thing Sullivan hopes his students remember about him is that he invited them to reach for their greatest selves.

'I'd like each of them to be a good parent, a good husband, a good wife and a good citizen,' he said. 'Then they'll be assets to their community.'