Friday, September 11, 2015

VSA Texas Unsung Hero of the Week: Milton Sullivan

VSA Texas recently lost an important member of our family. Milton Sullivan, age 47, husband to Artworks Director April Sullivan, lost his life in a car/pedestrian accident in Houston, Texas on August 30, 2015. Today the staff of VSA Texas remember Milton through these words and stories:

From April Sullivan:
            Milton Sullivan was my best friend. We met in 1992 when I first arrived in Austin to attend college and we have been inseparable ever since. We married in 2003. As many husbands know, when your wife joins the staff of a small non-profit, you become a volunteer. Not because you want to, but because you have to! Milton was a dedicated volunteer for VSA Texas. As a creative person, he believed strongly in our mission and was instrumental in many of our programs. As a writer, he proposed that we have a chapbook making class. So we did! Chris Strickling led a small group of writers in crafting short stories that were then printed up into small booklets. As a musician, he was a constant presence at our Open Mic and his epic performances can be seen on this YouTube playlist, courtesy of Malvern Books. As a person living with a mental illness, he was an advocate for the Stand Up for Mental Health program and posted flyers all over town and talked up the shows to everyone he met. Although, he never participated in that program, Milton was most definitely a comedian. I appreciate the love and acceptance with which my VSA Texas family embraced Milton.

 Milton and April Sullivan dancing at an outdoor concert while in
Albuquerque, NM for the Southwest Conference on Disability, October 2014
From Lynn Johnson:
            How did I know Milton? Let me count the many ways. I don’t remember exactly the first time I met Milton, but April is my office mate and she introduced me. He had a huge smile and was very, very tall. He loved his sodas and his cigarettes for a while. I do know he loved his music and loved jamming with anybody that would jam with him. He knew more bands and songs than I could ever imagine and knew the words to most of them. Milton would bring in his guitar to the office and play his latest song, followed by a discourse on good versus evil. He could switch topics on a dime, and some of them were highly, highly amusing. He helped us out with our festivals in and out of town, towing our art supplies around and buying Bongo, their dog, a hamburger for Bongo’s birthday. He gave me his bologna and cheese sandwich at Art in the Park in San Antonio as I had forgotten my lunch. He could make me laugh and leave me speechless with his goofiness. Now he is Rockin’ In The Free World.

Milton dancing with a boy with Down syndrome at the Art in the Park
at Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio, May 2011
From Nicole Cortichiato:
I'll never forget the first time I met Milton:
            I'm at the VSA Texas Art Show. I walk out the back door to get some fresh air and the first thing I see is a giant. This giant has black-framed tinted glasses and converse tennis shoes on. I watch him play the guitar. He introduces himself as April's other half. He says, "Are you in the show?"
            I tell him, "Yeah, I have a book in the show called, What Kind of Bunny Ears Do You Have?"
            He says, "You wrote that?"
            "I bought that book for my mother."
            Then we have a discussion about discrimination and differences. It is an interesting conversation. But now every conversation with Milton has been interesting, hasn't it?

 Milton playing guitar in a chapel at the Southwest Conference on Disability
in Albuquerque, NM, October 2014
From Eric Clow:
            My favorite memories of Milton are the times we jammed. I remember he asked if I played music, and no sooner had I answered yes than he invited me to come play with The Shutaways, Milton's longtime band of rotating musical characters. So I brought my keyboard and amp to Room 101 of the AGE Building after hours, and there I met Milton and his drummer, Steve. Milton handed me a white binder filled with his original songs – with lyrics, chords, and everything – and we quickly surrounded ourselves with thick walls of sound and jammed through song after song. I didn't promise him much more than holding down the root notes of the chords using an organ setting with a lot of distortion, but he was always very supportive and open to my ideas.
            More than a lot of people, I think Milton really valued collaboration and the dream of a thriving community of artists and musicians with disabilities, a dream that I still hold close to my heart. I remember being so excited after that first jam session, I even called up my mom to tell her I was in a band. It was true that I wrote and recorded a lot of my own music and often jammed with close friends of mine, but this was the first time I had been welcomed into an established group, and I felt validated as a musician to be invited back – especially considering how slow and limited my musical abilities were.
            I always enjoyed Milton’s songs and the way he came to each jam session with his binder of lyrics and chords that could immediately include anyone new to the group. Milton had a great collection of songs, which can still be heard on The Shutaways SoundCloud here: In his absence, I have found myself listening to one song more than all the others, the tune entitled, “Accept It.” Here are my favorite lines from his song:

So I take a deep breath my friend and control of my life
Forget about past things and start to thrive
Just accept it
Accept it and go on
Accept it
Accept it and be strong

From Celia Hughes:
            To say that Milton Sullivan was an unsung hero is a little funny because Milton was always ready to entertain with his guitar and a song. I met Milton many years ago when he was helping to put up wall shelves in the Access Arts Austin office. I learned that day the logic of proper wall mountings and also forged the foundation of what was to become a treasured friendship. Milton was a gentle man who was willing to help when he could and was honest and direct when he couldn’t. The VSA Texas art closet was his challenge, as well as our public storage unit, but he tried to keep us organized and tidy…not an easy job!
            For many years Bongo, his small but mighty guard dog, helped keep Milton and April safe from any intruders. Even when he couldn’t walk, see, or hear very well – and had most of his teeth removed – Bongo kept his vigil to protect. Milton loved that little dog and they made a great team. I have a fond memory of Milton, towering over me at 6’6”, with an ever-watchful Bongo in his arms. They never went anywhere without that little fellow, and now Milton and Bongo are together again, looking for a little mischief and a little adventure.
            I will miss his beautiful smile and his reflections on life, art and music. He was always working on a song or reworking an older one, and his guitar was never far from him. Even when the world around him was becoming more chaotic and confusing, he would often sit outside my office window and find comfort in the chords. He never met a stranger, and for that reason, there are many people whose lives have been changed forever in musical and magical ways.

A favorite family portrait of Milton, April, and Bongo at the beach

We invite you to share your memories of Milton at his Memorial Service on Saturday, September 19th, from 3:00 - 5:00 pm, at Austin Clubhouse, 610 E 45th Street, Austin, TX 78751, inside Hyde Park Christian Church.


  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories about a wonderful friend!
    San Antonio, TX

  2. what wonderful reflections on a man I didn't know well yet will never forget. He was a gentle giant, a good heart and a sweet soul. I was always touched by his immeasurable love for April.

  3. Milton would often come to my office and we would sing hymns together. The big guy would often cry as he thought on the words of the songs. I counted him a friend and the world is less without him.