Obituary: Tom Sullivan, 71, was mental health chief in El Dorado, Sacramento counties

02/21/2014 6:42 PM

02/21/2014 6:43 PM

Tom Sullivan, a dedicated public servant who advocated for treatment services as mental health director for El Dorado and Sacramento counties, died Feb. 7 after a recent stroke, his family said. He was 71.

Mr. Sullivan was a widely recognized expert on mental health policy in California. He began his career at Napa State Hospital in the 1960s and worked with the Legislature on the landmark Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which shifted responsibility for mental health care from state institutions to local agencies. He was a past president of the California Mental Health Directors Association.

He worked in Sacramento before moving to Placerville as El Dorado County mental health director from 1974 to 1979. A lifelong political activist, he was elected to the Placerville City Council in 1978 and served six years helping prepare the town for growth with a new downtown parking garage and other civic other projects.

He lobbied for state mental health directors and worked for Santa Cruz County before returning to Sacramento in 1986 to help build a new public mental health clinic. He served as the first director of the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center and was named director of mental health in 1991.

Faced with shrinking county funding and growing demand for services, Mr. Sullivan scrambled to find other revenue sources and joined with community agencies to provide help for people in crisis. He worked with Loaves & Fishes to coordinate mental health services for homeless people. After 11 years, he returned to El Dorado County to be social services director and retired in 2003.

“Tom cared about our clients,” said Jim Hunt, former Sacramento County director of health and human services. “He cared about our employees. He never shied away from a challenge, but he always had a cheerful countenance. He was very pleasant to be around.”

Compassion for others inspired Thomas Joseph Sullivan’s interests in policy and politics. Born in Boston on Feb. 2, 1943, he graduated from high school in Alabama, where he was active in the civil rights movement.

As a 21-year-old studying at Michigan State University, he entered a race for county auditor there. He took internships in low-income neighborhoods while earning a master of social work degree from University of Connecticut in 1967.

“He always had an interest in helping people and making things better,” said his wife, Kathleen Burne. “He felt that social work was a way to do that.”

Mr. Sullivan was divorced after 21 years of marriage to his first wife, Valerie Wichowski. He met Burne in 1987, and their careers moved on similar tracks as she oversaw El Dorado County’s mental health clinic and served as El Dorado County mental health director from 1991 to her retirement in 2003. The couple drove a motor home in retirement throughout the United States and traveled to many countries.

“He was a huge Boston Red Sox fan all his life,” Burne said. “When he was a boy, he and his brother would get on the subway and ride it to Red Sox games all the time.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Sullivan is survived by his two daughters from his first marriage, Kimberly and Kristin Singhasemanon; a brother, Mike; two stepchildren, Jason Burne and Lindsey Burne; and four grandchildren.

A service is set for 11 a.m. March 1 at Cameron Park Community Center, 2502 Country Club Drive, Cameron Park. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Loaves & Fishes, www.sacloaves.org.

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