Martha Sullivan recalled as Salisbury's 'encyclopedia'
SALISBURY — Whenever people in Salisbury are stumped on a historical fact about their town — whether it be the original location of an old barn or the location of a founding citizen’s grave — they have invariably turned to their human encyclopedia.
Tragically, Martha Sullivan, owner of one of the longest civic resumes in Addison County, will no longer be able to serve as the go-to source for all things Salisbury.
Sullivan, 79, died unexpectedly on Tuesday, Oct. 9, just hours before that evening’s gathering of the town selectboard, a panel she chaired. The day before her death she was dutifully sitting at a computer at the town garage, checking on the status of federal aid for Salisbury’s losses from a recent storm.
Her death leaves a sizable void in town government. And she takes with her a large chunk of the community’s institutional memory.
“She was truly the elder statesman,” fellow selectboard member Tom Scanlon said. “She had a wealth of knowledge, both historical and anecdotal, which will be sadly missed.”
Sullivan was born in Middlebury on Aug. 8, 1939, to Harry and Lois (Kelsey) Sullivan. Students of Salisbury history know the Kelsey family as having been among the first settlers of the town. The clan owned a farm that at one time included what is now Branbury Beach, noted Salisbury Historical Society member Jim Eagan.
“She felt a great obligation to the town because (of her family history),” Eagan said.
She was raised in Salisbury and graduated from Middlebury High School, after which she spent some time in Wyoming and Wisconsin, where she was a teacher, according to her obituary.
Sullivan ultimately returned to Salisbury and became a long-time dispatcher for the Vermont State Police, stationed at the Middlebury barracks. She also worked at the accounting services firm “The Tax Team” in Middlebury, where her renowned attention to detail and wry sense of humor were on full display.
It might be easier to cite the local public offices that Sullivan didn’t hold, at one time or another, during her many years in Salisbury. She served stints as a town auditor, lister, 911 coordinator and health officer. She served on the Salisbury Historical Society, cemetery committee, planning commission and selectboard.
“She was determined to give every minute to the town she could give,” said Eagan, who served with Sullivan during her time on the planning commission and historical society.
Scanlon echoed those sentiments.
“She gave so very much of herself for the town of Salisbury,” he said. “She is truly irreplaceable and will be missed terribly.”
Those who knew Sullivan said she enjoyed her privacy, but went out of her way to help her town and fellow citizens. She knew how to get her point across and to respectfully listen to others’ viewpoints, according to Scanlon.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being on the board with Martha and I welcomed her chairmanship,” he said. “We did not always agree, however, we disagreed amicably with mutual respect.”
Resident Deb Brighton worked with Sullivan for many years on the planning commission and in other efforts on behalf of the town.
“I had complete respect for her diligence and her love of Salisbury,” she said.
Brighton called Sullivan “a very strong” person, who “didn’t play to the crowd; she did things the right way.”
Sullivan was also a very candid person when it came to sharing her views.
“She had strong opinions and she let you know what they were,” Brighton said
Eagan said he appreciated Sullivan’s ability to simplify the often complex issues fielded by the planning commission.
“She put the town’s interests ahead of her personal agenda,” he recalled.
Resident Rebecca Holmes knew Sullivan well and frequently saw her in action. Holmes is the driving force behind Salisbury’s newsletter, the Spotted Salamander. As such, she’s dutifully attended selectboard meetings for the past 13 years.
“She was a wonderful selectboard chair, a real public servant, courteous, a good listener — and at the same time, someone who could move an agenda along gracefully,” Holmes said. “While she sometimes had strong opinions on issues, the climate on her selectboard was collaborative, even in the heat of disagreement.”
Sullivan appreciated her town’s special attributes and wanted to see them preserved, according to those who knew her.
“Martha had a deep love for the town, a genuine sense of place,” Holmes said. “In this age of ‘starter homes’ and ‘investment properties,’ hers was a rare voice for plain ‘home.’”
Though she’s now gone, Eagan believes Sullivan’s work in promoting a clean environment, responsible development and a refurbished town hall will pay dividends for future Salisbury residents who unfortunately won’t get a chance to meet her.
The Salisbury selectboard acknowledged Sullivan’s passing with a respectful moment of silence prior to Tuesday’s meeting. The board wants to hear from residents interested in serving in Sullivan’s place on the selectboard until Town Meeting Day next March, at which the remaining year on her term will be up for election.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.