BY MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
JAMESTOWN – Former Governor Bruce G. Sundlun, who died at his home last Thursday at the age of 91, is remembered here not for his business acumen, his courageous leadership of the state or his powerful patronage of the arts.
Sundlun’s local legacy is that of a man deeply interested in his community, always willing to talk over matters of civic concern, available to serve as figurehead for the smallest island observances and as patrician figure frequently seen at town council meetings.
Former Police Chief Thomas Tighe recalls many meetings with the former governor.
“A few years ago, he was supposed to be the master of ceremonies and hand out the awards for Ali’s Run,” the memorial road race honoring Ali Dunn Packer. “The race had already started and he was stuck so I went out and got him from Southwest Drive [the location of the home he’s owned for nearly nine years, overlooking the West Passage of Narragansett Bay]. I took him to Fort Getty.”
Touchingly, three years ago when he was 88, Sundlun donned his much-decorated World War II uniform – he was awarded the Purple Heart, an Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Legion of Honor’s highest commendation – and marched in the Memorial Day Parade.
“I always led the parade,” says Tighe, “and he marched right downtown.”
It was not unusual, he adds, for Sundlun to drop by for a chat.
“He’d come in and talk to me or I would meet him someplace for coffee. He came in when I was interim town manager and asked if I was interested in doing it full-time. I said I wasn’t. He told me he was going to put in for it.”
And he did.
In 2005, when he was 85, Sundlun applied to become Jamestown’s town manager administrator.
Fred Pease, who headed the selection committee, recalls being caught slightly off-guard by the application.
“I was a little bit surprised. He’s a very active guy [but] we were looking for a long-term employee. A leader [of his stature], we’re not used to someone with that much age. He had his own ideas about how things would work. We never got to the point of interviewing him; given the other applicants, he didn’t offer what we needed.”
Until fairly recently, Sundlun still enjoyed conducting business at the town hall.
Cheryl Fernstrom, town clerk since March 2010, says, “He’s been in since I’ve been here. I got a copy of his deed for him.” While she notes that the elder statesman appeared rather frail, he was still sharp.
On this side of the bridge, Bruce Sundlun’s amazing tale of bravery and survival endures at the Quonset Air Museum where a painting of his B-17F Flying Fortress the “Damn Yankee” is enshrined on the wall the 8th Air Force Ready Room – also called the Heroes Room.
The tribute includes a dramatic account of the incident, accompanied by a photo of Sundlun and three crewmen in flight gear. Two of them were among the four killed in a German air attack.
There is also a large painting of Sundlun’s plane, the “Damn Yankee”, by local artist Domenic DeNardo. Sundlun also autographed the piece.
A member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was piloting the bomber which was part of the 384th Bomb Group 545th when it was shot down over Germany on Dec. 1, 1943. With the plane in danger of exploding, Sundlun and the surviving crew bailed out.
Five survived; only Sundlun escaped capture, walking across Nazi-occupied Belgium. After working with the Belgian underground and the French Resistance, he reached safety five months later.
Dave Payne, executive director and president of the air museum board recalls Sundlun’s visits with the facility’s management team.
“I don’t know if people are aware of this, how much of a hero this man was. He was Jewish, shot down by Germans – that in itself is one hell of a hero. He was running around, staying alive, getting out of that country. He walked out of that whole mess.
“It’s just amazing. I try to tell people when I bring them around on tours, what kinds of people [the war heroes] were. I remember Bruce sitting there in the Ready Room. He was a lot like me; he never minced words. If there was something on his mind, he said it. He kinda insulted two men at the meeting; it was funny.”
Sundlun was famous– sometimes notorious–for speaking his mind. A classic anecdote, recalled by an onlooker, occurred during his years at the State House. A delegation of German tourists was being given a tour and the governor graciously agreed to meet with them.
At the end of the conversation, one visitor asked him, “Have you ever visited our country?”
His reply: “I was shot down over your country.”
Sundlun will remain a force of nature in his place of honor, his wartime deeds never forgotten.
That’s as it should be be, says Dave Payne. “Bruce remembered us.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .