The former sheriff of Arapahoe County in Colorado, Patrick Sullivan, had an embarrassing moment last month. Just days after Thanksgiving, the retired lawman allegedly offered to share a bit of crystal meth with a young man he had taken a liking to, in exchange for some unspecified favors, apparently of a sexual nature. So there’s the issue of possessing the illegal substance, and the issue of soliciting a prostitute, who in this case happened to be a police informant. Oops. Not a good way to start the holidays.
The arrest of the 68-year-old Sullivan, known heretofore as a pillar of the Littleton, Colo., community he had served for decades, drew even more attention when he was held, in lieu of bail initially set at a half-million dollars, in the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. Detention Center. If that name sounds familiar, it should. The jail was named for the former sheriff himself.
In the wake of his arrest (Sullivan was later released when bail was dropped to $50,000 after a court hearing), Arapahoe County officials announced that they would begin a review of the policy that allows the naming of public buildings after people who are still in possession of a pulse. It has always seemed to me a nobrainer to name buildings and parks and other such public goods only after those who have gone on to their final reward, and who thus have forfeited their ability to embarrass themselves and us in the process. (The Kennedys are an exception to this, and most other rules.)
The Big Ten Conference, which, by the way contains 12 football teams, and whose own name only makes sense in a world in which Boise State and San Diego State get to join the Big East, faced a similar problem. The trophy that the conference awards annually to its championship team was named after Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno and University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. In the wake of the child abuse charges against Paterno’s assistant Jerry Sandusky, and Penn State’s firing of Paterno for failing to report what he knew, the Big Ten decided it was time for the trophy to lose the hyphen, and so when the Wisconsin Badgers took down Michigan State on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, they took home the Amos Alonzo Stagg trophy, which honors a legendary coach who died in 1965 at age 102.
I understand the enthusiasm and gratitude that makes people want to name things after people they admire or whose accomplishments they wish to recognize. If I were mayor, every street in town would be Bruce Springsteen Street and at every corner those streets would intersect with Bruce Springsteen Avenue, but that would be a very bad idea, not only because the mail would never arrive, and you could never give anyone directions (although it would be fun listening to the GPS voice: “at the next intersection, turn left on Bruce Springsteen Avenue, then turn right on Bruce Springsteen Street”). Yet Bruce might just go off the deep end and endorse Rick Santorum, or Michele Bachmann—you just never know. Sometimes we have to curb our enthusiasm.
We all know why the basketball court the No. 1 nationally ranked Orangemen (and -women) play on is called Jim Boeheim Court. We all know why the facility they practice in is called the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. It is because Melo gave a lot of money, and because people who love and admire Jim Boeheim gave a lot of money. It’s become the norm in philanthropy and fundraising these days.
People in the fundraising business argue that you can’t get people to give without offering them the right to put their name on something. That’s insulting to potential honorees. Not all well-known people have the ego of Donald Trump.
This naming game is part of a culture that rewards and inspires narcissism, lives only in the present, and is in danger of losing a sense of history. I will bet that if you had a policy against naming those facilities in honor of living people, you could have still persuaded young Carmelo to make that donation and let him name that building after his hero, whoever that might be (or perhaps after his father, who bore the same name). Likewise you could picture Boeheim leading a campaign to name that court after someone he would very much like to honor.
There’s no question that the Boeheims and Melo and others have done positive things for the community. Patrick Sullivan did, too. He once saved the lives of two deputies by crashing his jeep through a fence to keep a shooter from harming them. He was advocating for stiffer drunk driving laws years before MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) became widely known. He organized law enforcement opposition to lax regulations on automatic weapons. For this and more the National Sheriffs’ Association voted him the top sheriff in the country in 2001, the year before he retired.
walk along the SU campus, you see buildings named for former
chancellors, and deans. Honoring the departed preserves and teaches the
history of a place. Buildings are meant to be forever. Let’s see how
reputations hold up before we start etching in granite. Meanwhile if you
get the urge to see your name on something, make it a birthday cake.
Ed Griffin-Nolan’s weekly Sanity Fair column is produced in the Molly English cubicle at the Walt Shepperd newsroom in the Art Zimmer New Times building at 1415 W. Genesee St. He can be reached at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.