Honor student finds inspiration in life, class By David King, University Marketing
Ben Sullivan was nervous about the abstract he had written for his research paper.
“I thought, as I was going to turn it in, that he might flunk me, because it really wasn’t a research paper at all,” he says of the proposal he gave Dr. Oren Renick last fall. “It was more like a story. It was supposed to be three pages, and I think it was six or seven…I thought, ‘I’ll be back to the drawing board.’”
After all, it was a proposal for a personal story, one as close to Sullivan’s heart as it could get. It wouldn’t involve hours of tedious research. And it more than likely was going to grow, just as the abstract had grown.
But that paper, prepared for an honors course called Baseball and the American Experience, didn’t land the senior an F after all: He graduated summa cum laude from Texas State in spring 2010 with a double major in English and philosophy.
In fact, the paper accomplished more than he ever expected. It provided some catharsis from a tumultuous adolescence. And it sent two very different people, student and professor, on a journey through heartbreak and pain and will take them both to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Sullivan’s mother was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, not long after he became a teenager. Through four years of his adolescence, he was the primary caregiver for his single mother, to the point of driving her to doctor’s appointments long before he was old enough to be licensed, helping prepare budgets so she could afford a long-shot medicine that cost $850 a month and missing large amounts of school to care for her.
She died just a month before his 18th birthday.
He wound up living with his father and finishing high school in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, and he came to Texas State because it was one of just two places where he bothered to apply. It turned out that the challenges of college academics suited him; he went from a kid who slid by in high school to an honor student.
And in fall 2009, he wound up in Renick’s class. A professor in the School of Health Administration, Renick had taken over the course from a colleague several years earlier and combined the study of baseball statistics and history into a look at the sport’s ties to American culture. A big part of his students’ grade would be a 20-page research paper that had to begin with an abstract.
When Renick’s assignment came along, Sullivan realized it was time to face some of the issues of his adolescence. Following a synopsis by Renick of Gehrig's life, Sullivan approached him about his mother's life and his desire to do his research paper on Gehrig. Renick challenged him to blend his personal experience into his Gehrig research. Sullivan would, he outlined in the abstract, trace what he called the “little signposts, the arc” of the fatal degenerative disease in his mother and in Gehrig. He would combine personal experiences with his interpretation of a collection of letters between Gehrig, who died in 1941, and his doctor, as well as biographies of the New York Yankees star.
“I was very nervous about doing it, and I still am,” Sullivan says. “On one hand, it’s all speculation, because I don’t know if these events I’m talking about really occurred in his life. I’m making this story that isn’t a strict biography. Will I have it in writing that this or that happens? It’s just little things that I noticed with the disease with my mom and applying them to him. And they may not have ever happened.
“Hopefully, the goal is that something close enough like it happened to make it what’s tangible to a human, the empathetic part of it. People know his biography . . . Hopefully, if I’ve done my job correctly as the writer, there’s an emotional insight into what it would mean to have that disease, from someone who saw it every day.”
The concept touched Renick, whose fields of interest include the burden that caregiving can place on families.
“He brings me a treasure trove of a story that relates to baseball,” he says. “But his story is like an onion because it has so many layers to it. It was a real opportunity for me to relate to a unique student whose life experience also was very compatible with some things I’m interested in.”
Sullivan took on the project in the midst of a semester that also saw him working on a 40-page collection of poems as his honors thesis, an upper-division philosophy course and a class on the ultimate struggle of good vs. evil, Milton’s Paradise Lost.
“In three months I turned in like 110 pages of writing,” he says. “Between papers and daily assignments, this 20-page paper for philosophy — the baseball paper — and the thesis of 40 pages of poems, I feel like I have released so much language out of myself that I don’t know how to speak anymore.”
The intensity of the work spilled from one discipline to another. A poem would uncover a memory for the paper. Reading about Gehrig’s everyday struggles with ALS would inspire his poetry. The heavy thinking involved in the philosophy and English classes would populate everything.
“Every day, I was waking up and writing before I went to class and afterward, and I threw away most of it,” he says. “There was paper everywhere. But it was beautiful; it was such a great experience. The lines between what was philosophy and what was this paper and what was poetry were all very blurred. I think that’s good, at least I hope.”
Renick, who has been at Texas State since 1990, has presented his own papers at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, a scholarly conference held in the hometown of the Baseball Hall of Fame, since 2000. Since he has been teaching Baseball and American Culture, he also has submitted student papers, and he often took students along to New York, even if their papers weren’t chosen.
Sullivan’s work was accepted. He and Renick will present it on June 2, 2010, 69 years to the day after Gehrig died in New York.
“As opposed to in the past, when it’s my paper and the students are tagging along, it’s his paper and I’m tagging along with him,” Renick says. “I’ll just do the intro and he’ll do the presentation.”
The professor and the student couldn’t be more different. Renick is a self-described “what you see is what you get” person, with degrees in law, political science, history, theology and healthcare administration. Sullivan is a musician, a writer and a philosopher, someone who has questioned just about everything at one time or another.
“I was always impressed by Sully’s potential,” Renick says. “But then when he brought this story to me, it opened this whole arena in common interests. You might think that on the surface these two guys don’t have any mutual interests. We found a real common ground, to do something beyond ourselves and something that’s important for our relationships.”
Even their futures are decidedly different. After the trip to Cooperstown, Sullivan and Renick will complete a manuscript of the presentation for publication. Then their futures are decidedly different. Renick will go back to work, teaching three sections of healthcare law. Sullivan has no plans beyond a summer job and putting to paper what may be dozens of songs he has bottled up in his head.
“After that, I have no idea, like any other recent graduate,” he says. “I don’t know where I’ll fit, but I’m sure I’ll find something.”
In many ways, he already has.
More to the Story
Ben Sullivan also presented a paper at the Faith in Action national conference in Orlando, Fla., in April. He received a standing ovation, as well as these comments from members of the board of the organization, which aims to create caregiver programs across the nation:
“I hope Sully will continue to help promote among young adults, a greater understanding and appreciation for those who are chronically ill or dying. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to hear such an amazing story from an admirable young man. There is no doubt in my mind that he will wholeheartedly continue to be a valued asset to his community and serve as a role model for our youth as we move towards a brighter tomorrow.”
“I was particularly impressed with this young man’s speech and ability to deliver a very moving, articulate message. I think it reinforces the thought that with encouragement obstacles can be overcome. As his mentor you have to be recognized to, this is what advocacy is all about.”
“Sully is an outstanding young man. His presence indicates that he has had a wonderful support system and I think you played a part in this. His presentation was low-key, yet very insightful and heartwarming. What a winner!”
“It was a brilliant and profoundly moving presentation by an exceptionally talented young man.”
“One aspect of Sully’s talk was just that — he talked his story. At no time did it seem scripted or forced. He seemed to use his own words and in a very gentle manner. Thank you for bringing Sully and his story to us and the conference.”
“Sully's wisdom from this life experience gives one a prospective of how compassion and love aspires knowledge, courage and reflection to human suffering and mortality that many persons never understand or experience. His demeanor was sincere and moving in terms of his personal journey and communication to the audience of this presentation. Everyone was deeply appreciative and humbled by his story. He serves as a role model for others to emulate.”