It was supposed to be a summer job for 17-year-old John Sullivan. It was 1979, and the part-time work as a summer laborer for the city of Westwood would help him save up for college.
Sullivan went on to college — but he never stopped working for Westwood. He is the city’s first and only public works director — before, the city only had a public works superintendent — and he must love it, or he wouldn’t have stuck around for the past 40 years.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with them, and my coworkers,” he said. “There’s only, routinely, about 12 to 13 employees here, so we’re a small family.”
His first full-time gig for the city was as a class A maintenance man. In 1985, he became parks superintendent and, two years later, earned the additional title of public works superintendent. But the biggest change came in 1991 when George Brown, then public works superintendent, suffered a heart attack and eventually had to quit.
The council then asked Sullivan to become the city’s first public works director and reshape the public works department. With the changes, he would oversee the budget, work directly with the council on capital improvement projects, and lead strategic planning for the city’s infrastructure.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that I have the skill set to be a director,’ and they said, ‘We think you’ll do just fine,’” he said. “It was overwhelming; I was 31 years old. It was quite a leap. It scared the bejesus out of me, but I had a lot of good councilmembers who were good mentors.”
His staff of two has since grown to four (including Sullivan), allowing him to focus on strategic planning for the city’s aging infrastructure. He often collaborates with neighboring governing bodies on projects, including with seven other cities, two other counties, Kansas state agencies, the state of Missouri, the Mid-America Regional Council and local stakeholders.
Things have changed quite a bit in the past 40 years, he said, adding that he believes the quality of properties generally improve when the city streets improve.
“I wished I’d taken more photographs when I first started to work here in the city, because this city has changed a lot,” he said, citing new development along 47th Street and on Rainbow Blvd.
Taking each day as they come
Coming up with funding for capital improvements has always been the hardest part of the job, especially after Sprint moved its headquarters to Overland Park. But since joining the city, he has made sure to improve nearly every street in some way. The city’s new half-cent sales tax helps cover project costs.
“I just take each day as they come and we try to leave things better than we found them,” he said.
Sullivan isn’t done yet. He only has three more streets left to rebuild before he can say public works has touched every street in Westwood during his tenure. And in a few weeks, he will lead one of the city’s largest capital improvements projects: Completely rebuilding 10 streets and stormwater projects.
He also dreams of one day refurbishing Joe D. Dennis Park and expanding it with city property previously owned by Westwood Christian Church.
He also contracts as public works director for Westwood Hills and Mission Woods. A lifelong Westwood resident, Sullivan graduated from Shawnee Mission North in 1979. He lives with his wife, Jill Sullivan. They raised three children.
“I mean this truly: I have worked with the greatest bunch of elected people over the years, I really have,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am and wouldn’t have been able to do the things I’ve done without them. Some of them have been a little challenging, but that’s only made me better.”