Home > Uncategorized > John Sullivan, founder of COFAR, dead at 97

John Sullivan, founder of COFAR, dead at 97

John L. Sullivan, a founding member of COFAR and a tireless advocate for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities, died peacefully on Thursday.

Sullivan was also a founding member of the Arc of Massachusetts and was a central figure in class action litigation in the 1970s in Massachusetts that led to improvements in the care of what is now the Department of Developmental Services. Those improvements resulted in upgrades in care and conditions in developmental centers and in the creation of a community-based system of group homes that now serves the vast majority of persons in DDS care.

In March 2012, Sullivan was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the
Department of Developmental Services.

One of Sullivan’s daughters, Jean Sullivan, is intellectually disabled and has been a resident of the Wrentham Developmental Center since 1959.  Another daughter, Colleen Lutkevich, has carried on Sullivan’s work on behalf of the developmentally disabled, and has served for many years as the volunteer executive director of COFAR.

John Sullivan photo1

John Sullivan

“My dad worked and fought his whole life to make the system work for the least fortunate among us,” Colleen Lutkevich said. “His advice was always, ‘never be afraid.'”

When Sullivan’s daughter, Jean, was a toddler, he and his wife, Gladys, helped found a preschool for disabled children. Gladys died last year after a 71-year marriage to John.

Sullivan later fought for the passage of Chapter 766, the state’s special education funding law, and petitioned local school committees for special education services within area towns.

In the 1970s, while Jean was living in the Wrentham center, Sullivan became a plaintiff in the landmark Ricci v. Okin lawsuit, which was brought to challenge conditions in large institutions in Massachusetts that then housed thousands of individuals.

During that time, Sullivan became a member and then president of the Wrentham Parents Association.  He also helped found the Charles River Arc, the Charles River Workshop, and later, three group homes.

Sullivan was a founding and executive board member of the Arc of Massachusetts, and organized one of the organization’s first state conventions. However, he opposed the Arc’s decision to advocate for closure of the developmental centers, contending those facilities should remain as a residential option to individuals and their families needing care.

Sullivan’s disagreement with the Arc’s direction led him to drop his membership in that organization and to found COFAR in 1983.

As he accepted his lifetime achievement award in 2012, Sullivan said he wanted to “pay tribute to the wonderful people that work day in and day out (on behalf of the intellectually disabled). They are the saints on earth.”

He was a veteran of the US Navy, and served for four years in the Pacific during World War II on a minesweeper, the USS Searle, and on a minelayer, the USS Monadnock.

Sullivan grew up in Dorchester and West Roxbury, and spent several years in school at Miramar Seminary in Duxbury, before graduating from Roslindale High School.  After the war, Jack and Gladys were married, and moved to Jamaica Plain, then Dedham.

In addition to Jean Sullivan and Colleen Lutkevich, John Sullivan is survived by two other daughters, Joyce Wise and Laura Bradley.

A funeral Mass will be held on Wednesday morning, July 5 at 9:30 a.m. at St. Mary’s Church in Mansfield, with a reception to follow at the Parish Center.  Donations in John’s memory can be sent to either the Wrentham Family Association or to COFAR, both c/o Colleen Lutkevich, 3 Hodges St., Mansfield, MA 02048. Donations can also be made online on COFAR’s website at www.cofar.org.

  1. Ed
    July 1, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    John’s compassion and deeds improved the lives of countless individuals with intellectual disabilities, and supported their families. He made the world a better place. All of us at Advocacy Network thank him for his strength and dedication.


  2. Christina Stathis
    July 1, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    We thank John, his deceased wife and Colleen for all their advocacy for so many years.
    All of our children who are severely handicapped have benefited from his time and commitment to our cause. Now it is our turn to continue to fight for these children who have grown into adulthood and need more and different care.

    Our sympathy goes out to John’s family. You have lost a great man and I know you all will continue to advocate for your sister for as long as you are able.

    Gus and Pauline Stathis


  3. Anonymous
    July 2, 2017 at 3:27 am

    An example for other advocates to emulate – thank you John Sullivan – may you continue to watch over from us from the other side of heaven.


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