If you were wondering where Kara and I were the past week, we were in Rhode Island, where my father in-law, Bruce Sundlun died. We were at his bedside when he passed, and it was a remarkable, emotional experience. Neither of us had ever watched someone die before, and it truly changed us forever. Kara delivered one of the eulogies at the funeral, which was no easy task. Writing it wasn’t difficult, because Kara had so much material to work with, but delivering it, took nerves of steel, which my wife certainly has.
My father in-law lived a pretty amazing life. He cheated death several times, most notably when he was shot down over Nazi-occupied Beligium during World War II. Bruce later worked for the Justice Department, helped plan President Kennedy’s inaugural parade, ran an aviation company, a chain of stores and television stations. Along the way, there were all sorts of fascinating moments, like the time he fired George Steinbrenner. Then, at age 70, my father in-law was elected governor of Rhode Island.
As governor, Bruce made some bold decisions, some of which had an impact here in Connecticut. Bruce spearheaded the effort to expand and modernize T.F. Green Airport. As a result, Rhode Island attracted Southwest Airlines and almost immediately, people from Connecticut were coming to the Ocean State to get cheaper fares out of Providence. A few years later, Bradley Airport was expanding and modernizing.
My father in-law was also instrumental in the revival of Providence, turning it into a retail and tourist destination. He loved to tell me the story of how he and then Mayor Buddy Cianci traveled to Seattle to try to persuade Nordstrom to open up shop in what was believed to be a dying New England city. It worked. Nordstrom now anchors the Providence Place development, which has attracted national retailers, upscale condominiums, and companies that have relocated to Providence because it has become very cool city.
Bruce pushed for the Rhode Island Convention Center and Westin Hotel and the reclaiming of rivers that were once buried downtown. Providence has received national acclaim for its revival and has become a model for how small cities should re-invent themselves.
Shortly thereafter, leaders here in Connecticut pursued the same course of action for our capital city and there were plenty of comparisons with Providence. We built the Connecticut Convention Center, a luxury hotel, the Science Center, housing and Front Street.
Bruce Sundlun visiting the Connecticut Science Center, 2010
Bruce would often ask me about Connecticut politics, and we discussed at length his work on turning Providence around and what would work here in Hartford. He acknowledged our capital city had advantages over his city, but when he looked around he told me they were obviously not being used to their fullest potential.
At Bruce’s funeral, I asked Cianci why downtown Providence seems to be faring better than Hartford. Without hesitation, he said Hartford’s problem is that “they tore everything down, and they are left with so much barren land.” Cianci told me how he and my father in-law worked hard to preserve and rehab buildings and accentuate them with new construction. He has promised to come on Face the State sometime in the future to talk about the two cities.
I only wish my father in-law could join him.