Constable: A fall at Notre Dame cut his life short, but Declan's legacy thrives
An ill wind whipped across the University of Notre Dame practice football field on Oct. 27, 2010. Twenty-year-old junior Declan Drumm Sullivan of Long Grove perched with his camera atop a hydraulic scissors lift 40 feet in the air.
"Gust of wind up to 60 mph. Well today will be fun at work … I guess I've lived long enough," the always entertaining Declan posted on social media at 3:22 p.m. His 4:06 p.m. update included a swear word followed by, "This is terrifying." Forty-eight minutes later, the pavement next to his lift, which was toppled by 53 mph gusts, was littered with pieces of his shattered camera and stained with Declan's blood.
When the phone rang at Declan's family home in Long Grove, his father, Barry Sullivan, could tell the call was coming from Notre Dame. "What is Declan up to now?" he remembers thinking. A somber Tom Doyle, a priest who was Notre Dame's vice president of student affairs, explained there had been an accident. The stunned dad turned to his wife, Alison Drumm, and said, "Declan is dead."
That horrific tragedy ending the life of a smart, funny and promising filmmaker gave life to a legacy that has changed hundreds of lives for the better.
Declan's memory funds the Horizons for Youth charity and inspires an uplifting documentary. That 25-minute film, "Declan: My Time On Earth," produced by ESPN's E:60 series, will be shown free Thursday night at Carmel High School in Mundelein, where Declan and his younger sister Gwyneth and brother Macartan graduated.
The parents waited until Mac came home from Carmel football practice to tell him his brother was dead. Wyn, a couple of months into her freshman year at Notre Dame, met with university officials and waited for a university car to deliver the family to campus.
"You gather family and wonder how we are going to get through this," Barry remembers thinking.
"Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe," read a campuswide email from the Rev. John Jenkins, the university president.
Critics were angry and wanted those responsible to pay. Declan didn't have to die. The team could have practiced indoors. The lift shouldn't have been that high. The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Notre Dame $77,500 for six safety violations that it said the school knew put employees in an unsafe situation. A Forbes story estimated Declan's family would be awarded $30 million or more if a wrongful-death lawsuit made those responsible pay.
"Certainly, we had a lot of sadness, but I don't remember feeling that way," Barry says about suing, recalling the family's first discussions about what needed to be done. "We saw it as an accident. We hadn't won the lottery. This wasn't something for us to cash in on."
The family also wasn't out to punish anyone.
"The ones who felt most responsible were already suffering," Barry says. "And it seemed that whatever could be learned from it was being done." Notre Dame showed safety videos, mounted cameras on poles to film football practices, and made other changes in the name of safety.
"This is going to be about what you did after the accident," Barry remembers the family deciding. "We wanted to be very positive and forward-looking."
Receiving donations from friends and even strangers touched by Declan's story, the family started the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund. Barry, a Marquette University electrical engineer who got his doctoral degree from Princeton University, and Alison, a family medicine doctor with a practice in Lake Zurich, wanted to help kids who weren't as fortunate.
They were led to Horizons for Youth, a not-for-profit agency that counsels and tutors disadvantaged children in Chicago from elementary school through college. Headquartered on the grounds of the Old St. Patrick's Church, where Alison and Barry married nearly 32 years ago and their children were baptized, Horizons was helping the kids that Declan's family wanted to help.
"It just shows the kind of people they are," Tim Coffey, who became friends in first grade with the boy he called Dec, says of Declan's family. "They really made it easy by insisting that no one point a finger. They paved the way for everyone else to follow."
Fueled by family friends and classmates, the first fundraiser in spring 2012 drew more than 600 people to Navy Pier in Chicago and raised $600,000.
"It was a game-changing opportunity for us," says Audrey George, CEO of Horizons for Youth, which suddenly doubled its service by adding another 40 kids, who made their appearance at the fundraiser dressed in football jerseys with "Declan" on the back.
"We call them Declan's class," says George, who has seen that class (and the donations to support them) grow every year to the "Declan 96" students who will be revealed at this year's April 27 fundraiser.
Coffey -- who provided ESPN with many of the old videos Declan shot or appeared in, including one his parents had never seen of the fearless Declan jumping off the roof of his house -- became a mentor to a 9-year-old Horizons boy named Ezekiel Boose. Now a sophomore at St. Joseph High School in West Chicago, Ezekiel knows all about Declan. Coffey will invite the Boose family and Declan's parents to his wedding to Erin Coughlin, a special-education teacher he met when they both volunteered for a Horizons event.
"We do like to keep up with his friends. One of the hardest things to think about is what would Declan be doing now. Would he be having a family?" Barry says. "That is not going to happen. To me, it's better not to dwell on those things. It's better to think about 96 kids."
Horizons is filled with volunteers who knew Declan in grade school at St. Mary's in Buffalo Grove, Carmel and Notre Dame. Barry left his career in 2015 to become the charity's vice president of finance and operations.
"There's never a volunteer event I go to that I don't see Declan's friends," Coffey says. The annual fundraiser has grown every year and friends of the Sullivan children have gone from guests to donors. They all have "a Declan-size hole" in their lives, Coffey says.
The annual fundraisers -- this spring's is titled "No Ordinary Night in the Emerald City" -- have brought in more that $5 million and allow Horizons to serve 263 kids, George says.
"We're not quite at that figure Forbes threw out, but if we had taken a big check, it would have been a one-and-done. This has become a big part of our lives, an important part of our lives," Barry says. "I'm always thinking about other families who have stories that are sadder than ours, and they don't have this. It is great that out of a loss like that something positive could come. To me, that's what life is about."
The transition from Notre Dame tragedy to Notre Dame triumph started the week of Declan's funeral. "How can I ever come here again?" Barry remembers thinking as he drove Wyn back to campus. "I just remember seeing her walking off with a friend to the dining hall and thinking, 'This is good. This is where she should be.'"
Wyn, 26, who graduated from Notre Dame in 2014, now is finishing medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is on the path to become a surgeon. Mac, who turns 24 later this month, graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 with a civil engineering degree and works in construction management.
"We think about him every day," Barry says of Declan, noting that windy days or phrases such as "windfall" or "Windy City" can't add to their grief. The good work being done in Declan's name helps with that process.
"I don't know if we thought of it as a healing process, but it has become that," Barry says. "All this comes from our loss. All the good that's come of it, we still wish it had been anything but this way."
ESPN film capturesDeclan's legacyWhat: Viewing of ESPN documentary of Declan Drumm Sullivan's life and legacy with Horizons for Youth, followed by discussion with Declan's father, Barry Sullivan, and Audrey George, CEO of Horizons for Youth
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7
Where: Carmel Catholic High School Auditorium, 1 Carmel Parkway, Mundelein
For more: Visit declandrummsullivanfund.org and horizons-for-youth.org.