[Editor’s Note: Because I’ve published books under three middle names and created a variety of fictional “John [$variable] Sundman” personae, I find myself in the unusual position of stating that the obituary that follows is for a quite real person, my father, who died last Monday. The newspaper obituary is here. A longer version follows below the fold, with a few comments by me at the end of it. You’ll note that my father’s father was also named John Sundman. I suggest we blame him for any confusion — jrs.]
John E. Sundman
John E. Sundman, of Oldwick, NJ, died Monday, October 7, 2013, after a brief illness.
He was born November 23, 1926 in Montclair, NJ. His father, John R. Sundman, a master mechanic, was an immigrant from Finland. His mother, Lillian (Hudson) Sundman, a one-time governess, was an immigrant from Ireland.
Mr. Sundman grew up in Caldwell, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December, 1943 and began active service upon completing high school in April 1945. He was honorably discharged at the end of 1946.
Returning to New Jersey, he enrolled in St. Peter’s College. While in college he worked as a truck driver, becoming skilled driving 18-wheelers in the years before power steering and power brakes. He later obtained an MBA from NYU.
In 1949 he was introduced to Margaret McFall, the cousin of a friend and a recent arrival from Scotland. He was immediately smitten. John and Margaret were married in June 1950, and the first of their seven children was born in April 1951. The family lived in North Caldwell until 1976.
Mr. Sundman started his career in finance at a small steel company in New Jersey. He held positions of increasing responsibility there, and then at Columbia Gas Systems in NYC and at the Singer Corporation, where he became Treasurer and International Controller. Mr. Sundman was the CFO and acting COO of W.T. Grant Company in the early 1970’s. He had been recruited by creditors to try to save the company and was the only board member not sued by creditors or shareholders following the company’s bankruptcy, which at the time was the second largest in US history.
After a period of unemployment and a one-year stint in Ohio, Mr. Sundman, joined Lydall, Inc., in Manchester CT, a manufacturing concern. He served as CFO as the new management team reinvented the company, staying at Lydall until his retirement twelve years later. His tenure at Lydall was an unqualified success, and the price of the stock increased by a few multiples.
John E. Sundman believed in work, family, education, friendship, art, physical fitness and civic responsibility. He was proud of his working class roots and military service. He liked doing things for himself and he treated tradespeople with respect.
He had an extensive collection of tools, many of which he inherited from his father, and knew how to use all of them. His favorite entertainments included reading biographies and the British satirical magazine Punch, and listening to classical music. But he never sat down before dinner time unless it was to work. He disdained television.
As a young father, he tended the family’s sheep and cows on one of the last farms in North Caldwell, while working a full time job an hour’s drive away. When the town took the farm by eminent domain in 1965, Mr. Sundman was the general contractor on the new home he built for his family half a mile away. Thirty years later he was the general contractor on the house he built for himself and his wife in Oldwick.
He was deeply involved in the lives of his seven children. When they were young he was a Little League coach, soccer coach, chore-giver and homework taskmaster. As his children grew up and got married, Mr. Sundman took an equal interest in the lives of their spouses and of his seventeen grandchildren. His “clan” has gathered at Long Beach Island, New Jersey, for a week at the beach nearly every year since 1960.
He served as president of the North Caldwell Board of Education in the 1960’s when the Grandview Elementary and West Essex Regional High Schools were built, and was proud of innovations he championed there, including the introduction of French language instruction starting in second grade.
He was a firefighter in, and treasurer of, the North Caldwell Volunteer Fire Department for twenty-three years.
His many other volunteer activities included serving as member of the Juvenile Conference Committee in North Caldwell, President of the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra, and board member of the Matheny School in Peapack, NJ, a facility for people with complex disabilities.
During his retirement he and his wife visited Turkey, Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland and many other places around the world, where they invariably took long walking tours. He remained devoted to “[his] beautiful bride” until his final days.
Mr. Sundman is survived by his wife Margaret, his son Michael Sundman, of Basel, Switzerland, son John Sundman and daughter-in-law Betty Burton of Martha’s Vineyard; son-in-law Robert Angevine of Philadelphia, daughter Barbara Sport and her husband Jay Sport of Mountainside, NJ; daughter Margaret Jacangelo and son-in-law Joseph Jacangelo of Leesburg, VA; son Peter Sundman of Chatham, NJ; daughter-in-law Jennifer Sundman of Colorado Springs; 17 grandchildren; dear friends Harry and Maggie Seebode of Little Falls, NJ, and Fred Cushmore of North Caldwell, and by many dozens of family members, friends, neighbors and admirers. He was preceded in death by his sister Marie Sundman Bremser, son Paul Sundman, of Colorado Springs; daughter Maureen Angevine of Philadelphia, and daughter-in-law Mary Sundman, of Basel.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations in his memory be made to The Matheny Medical and Educational Center, 65 Highland Ave, Peapack, NJ 07977.
This isn’t a biography of my father or even a statement of what I think was most important or interesting about him; it’s merely an obituary notice, which serves a bunch of well known and important purposes and adheres to certain established conventions. When I submitted my original draft notice to the New Jersey paper of record I learned that all such notices are paid for by the family, and since Dad wouldn’t have wanted us to spend the kind of dough it would have cost to run the long form, I edited it down.
Here are a few things, annotated, that are hinted at in the long form and which are omitted in the one that appeared in the newspaper.
- My grandmother, Lillian Hudson Sundman, was at one point a governess for a wealthy family in Montclair. My grandfather was the chauffeur for that family. That’s how they met, a real Downton-Abbey-in-the-USA kind of story. By the time my father was born my grandfather owned his own garage, which he lost in the Great Depression.
- I learned from my father’s discharge papers that he had actually enlisted in the Army in 1943 when he had just turned 17 and the war was raging. Active duty was deferred until he had finished high school. My father was never a gung-ho military guy and hardly mentioned his service, which was all State-side. But I think it’s worth noting that he signed up when and how he did. He was proud of his military service and I am too.
- He knew how to drive a tractor-trailer old-school, and he was proud of that also. I remember the story of how he brought a fully-loaded trailer safely down a hill after the brakes had failed. He put it in low gear and rubbed the tires against the curb to slow him down. I heard that story a few times. He thought he was going to die.
- The friend who introduced my father to my mother was Jimmy Mehan, my godfather. Like almost everybody, I’m squeamish about details of my parents’ intimate, inner lives. But according to reliable testimony from more than one contemporary witness, my father was a goner from the moment he laid eyes on her.
- The experience at W.T. Grant put him in a giant pressure cooker; he was the subject of several stories in the New York Times, as I chronicled here. He took a big risk in accepting that job, and in the short run, it didn’t pay off. After Grant crashed he was tainted, although blameless, and couldn’t find work for nearly two years — with four kids in college — and when he did finally land a gig, it was in Toledo, Ohio. But in the long term I think he would say that it was worth it to have taken the risk. And his subordinates there in the finance department revered him. In fact the first phone call I received after my father died was from one of his former subordinates who told me “I only worked with your father for three years, but he was the single most influential person in my career. He was the best teacher I ever had and one of the best men I’ve ever met.”
Oh, the hell with it. I’m going to stop annotating this now. There’s so much more to be said and nothing more to be said. My father was a farmer; I taught farming in Peace Corps and studied agricultural economics at Purdue. My father was a firefighter; I’m a firefighter. My father disdained television; I haven’t had a television signal in my house for the last 30 years. And so on and so forth. Suffice it to say the man had an influence on me.
Sometimes when he got to telling a story he didn’t know when to shut up. I have some of that in me too, or so I’ve been told. So why don’t we stop here.
Godspeed, Dad. And thank you.
I am so sorry for your loss. He sounds like an amazing person — one of those who leaves the world a better place than how he found it.
Thank you. Like everybody I know of who had a father, I had experiences with my own father when we didn’t see eye to eye. Indeed sometimes we seemed to be form different planets.
But on the whole, I know that I am lucky and blessed. I’ve met thousands of people in my life, but I’ve never met anybody more fortunate than me in the Father department. Whatever my father’s flaws, he was forever earnestly devoted to the wellbeing of his children. He made mistakes, but his aim was ever true. 100% true. That’s pretty goddamn rare, and I know it.
It’s hard to say this well (I expect many readers, especially younger ones, won’t get it at all), but a big part of my father’s natural talent as a father was in making sure his children knew that in the family pecking order, and in Father’s affections, Mom came first; the rest of us came in tied for second. When we had family votes, for example, Dad got two votes, each kid got one, and Mother got 10. Woe betide any Sundman kid who spoke disrespectfully to Mother within Father’s earshot. Woe indeed. That was a mistake one didn’t make twice.
Stay tuned for my update (which I may post here, or may just communicate privately) after I’ve spoken about him at mass tomorrow. I plan to tell a story about him that I expect you, Harold, as a religious person, will find interesting, and, I hope, moving.