Two-term governor of Rhode Island, Bruce Sundlun was a complex, forthright servant of the people. Federal prosecutor, B-17 bomber pilot, CEO of the Outlet Company, to name just a few of his many accomplishments, Governor Sundlun was the quintessential Renaissance man.
Bruce Sundlun was born on January 19, 1920, the first child of Jan Zelda (Colitz) and Walter Irving Sundlun. Educated at Classical High School, Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts, and Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was an outstanding track star, Sundlun would leave college to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps a day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. His military training at Maxwell Field as a four-engine B-17 bomber pilot, would serve him well, especially on December 1, 1943, when his Flying Fortress, “Damn Yankee” was hit by the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes. Although Sundlun lost four of his nine men, he was able to parachute to safety and to elude the enemy by joining the Belgian Underground and, aided by the French Resistance, escaped to neutral Switzerland. For his bravery, Sundlun would be awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal adorned with oak leaf cluster, and the French “Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.”
Sundlun reached Switzerland about a month before the Normandy invasion. On the order of Allen Dulles, the Switzerland Director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Sundlun returned to France to serve as a bombardment spotter for the August 1944 invasion of Marseille. By August 1945, as a newly promoted captain, Sundlun would be honorably discharged, although he would continue to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, retiring as a colonel in 1980.
In 1949 Attorney General J. Howard McGrath appointed Sundlun Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. Sundlun subsequently served as Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General. Focusing on his private law practice in Washington, D.C. and Providence from 1954-1972, he also became a prominent businessman in the 1960s. Present at the founding of the Executive Jet Aviation (EJA), which included members such as celebrities James Stewart and Arthur Godfrey as well as Air Force generals Curtis E. LeMay and Paul Tibbetts of Hiroshima fame, Sundlun eventually served as its president from 1970 to 1976.
Although Bruce Sundlun was twice defeated in his bid for governor using much of his personal finances, he won handily on his third try, this time against incumbent Republican Edward DiPrete. Almost immediately following his inauguration in January 1991, Governor Sundlun closed thirty-five credit unions and ten banks after it was discovered that Joseph Mollicone, the president of the Heritage Loan and Investment Bank in the Federal Hill section of Providence, allegedly loaned $13 million to 128 depositors and businesses when in fact they neither asked for nor received any funds. The bank’s insurer, the privately-owned Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC), eventually went bankrupt, rendering the assets of about 300,000 people frozen. To compound the existing controversy, outgoing governor, Edward DiPrete and his son, were indicted on several counts of bribery and extortion.
In response, Governor Sundlun complied with a Providence Journal challenge to permit state pension records be disclosed to the public. Although these revelations of extortion, bribery, conflict of interest, and haphazard business practices increased voter antipathy, the process ultimately led to a healthier, high functioning governmental infrastructure. DiPrete served some jail time for his crime.
Governor Sundlun accomplished much during his four years in office. Respect and integrity were returned to the state through a series of much needed reforms. The Governor revamped the worker’s compensation laws and oversaw the expansion of T.F. Green Airport, with the design and construction of the “Sundlun Terminal,” which was named for him in 2010.
Bruce Sundlun died in July 2011 at the age of ninety-one. An accomplished athlete, lawyer, businessman, and governor, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2000.
Debra A. Mulligan