All of us lost two great friends in January when first Gilly Sullivan and then Jack Blackburn died. Both of these men helped build and shape our modern University through deep and long-standing commitments to their respective roles in University life—Gilly as director of the Alumni Association, and Jack as dean of admission for the undergraduate schools.
Gilly Sullivan retired in 1993 after 45 years of service to the Alumni Association, including 35 years as its director. He started working for the Association in 1948 after earning an accounting degree here. During his nearly half-century of service to the association, our alumni population grew by more than 300 percent. Through that period of growth, Gilly made the Alumni Association the University’s home away from home for returning alumni and their families, and he himself became our Mr. Outside, the person whose visits to local alumni groups, advocacy for alumni and their children, and unflagging support for the University simply stood for our best visions of the future. His good company was all but infectious because he took such deep pleasure in the friendships that hold together our far-flung family. His ready smile, his deep chuckle, his modesty, his always-amazing ability to recall names, his meaningful stories, and his quality of character made him the best companion for every occasion, the one who best embodied our University.
Gilly’s special blend of respect for tradition and adaptability in times of change or growth gave the Alumni Association its modern strength. Through the years, he developed or fostered dozens of alumni programs, among them loan programs to help students through tough times, and the Virginia Student Aid Foundation (now the Virginia Athletics Foundation), which provides scholarships for athletes. He was one of the first advocates of the Jefferson Scholars Program, the first to see the need for an expanded Alumni Hall and the endowments to sustain it, and always the great champion of the strategy of developing financial self-sufficiency as a hedge against the ups and downs of state finance. In 1992, Gilly received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for excellence of character and service to the University community.
Not everyone knew about another element of Gilly’s leadership in the community: He reached the rank of major general in the Virginia National Guard, and in that role he was a prominent figure both in the region served by the Monticello Guard, of which he was commanding officer, and in state and National Guard affairs.
When Jack Blackburn brought his wife, Betty, and their children, Heidi and John, to Charlottesville and the University in 1979, he was already the most highly respected college admission officer in Virginia. He had served previously as dean of admission at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. He came here as associate dean. When Jean Rayburn died in 1985, Jack became dean, and he served in that position until he died. As dean, he gave our University its reputation for humane and fair treatment of applicants and their families, for academic rigor rarely or never seen in public universities, and for innovation in serving students of every background and origin.
Jack’s fairness, sound judgment, and exceptional integrity have come to be the gold standard of good practice in admissions in this country and in the many foreign countries he visited as our ambassador. Many students found in him their first mentor within the faculty, a lifelong friend and a thoughtful and gentle advocate. Jack’s prudence and diligence have given us consistent improvements in the quality of each year’s entering class. On his watch, our University has become a national and global model of excellence.
Jack believed in and acted on the principles that the University must be open to all academically qualified students, and that fair competition—the level playing field—makes the University and our students strong. By his advocacy for AccessUVa and his investment of most of his adult life in relationships with the counselors, parents, and other adults who first identify students for us, he enabled thousands to drink from the cup of knowledge with us and to earn their places among our alumni. From beginning to end, Jack Blackburn worked to enable students and enrich education here. He succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining.