In the community

Vale attorney reflects on a long and rewarding career in Malheur County

Larry Sullivan holds up an Enterprise clipping that reprinted the announcement of his selection as attorney for the city of Vale. Sullivan wrapped up a four-decade-long career in the local legal field Jan. 1. Sullivan also served as the Ontario city attorney since 2007. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

VALE – Life journeys begin for a variety of reasons, and the quest that prompted Larry Sullivan’s move from Virginia to Malheur County was actually pretty simple.

He wanted to live in open spaces.

That was more than 40 years ago and Sullivan married, started a family and became a reliable and long-term fixture at Vale and Ontario City Council meetings.

Sullivan, arguably one of the most knowledgeable municipal lawyers in the county, officially retired Jan. 1.

“I am 70. I’ve worked 43 years. I am still in good health,” Sullivan said about his reasons for ending his law career.

Born in Wisconsin, Sullivan moved with his parents to Virginia when he was 10. The area was in the middle of a post-World War II building boom and Sullivan quickly yearned to live somewhere with lots of space and no sprawl.

After high school Sullivan went to college at the University of Virginia and, after earning degrees in psychology and philosophy, decided to go West.

“I took a year off,” he said.

The year off evolved into a decision to go to law school at the University of Oregon.

“I went because I couldn’t find a job that didn’t involve manual labor,” said Sullivan.

While at law school, Sullivan met his future wife Pat, who is now a senior state judge.

The two became good friends and, when Sullivan applied and was accepted for a job at the Malheur County District Attorney’s Office as an assistant prosecutor in 1978, they realized they missed each other.

“She had a job in Eugene,” he said.

They married in 1979.

Sullivan said he worked at the district attorney’s office until 1980, when went into his private practice.

“What I enjoyed most was getting the feeling I was getting an opportunity to solve problems for people,” he said.

Sullivan was already well-known within the legal community when in 1986 – on a whim – he decided to apply for the vacant position of Vale city attorney.

“I thought, what the heck,” he said.

In 2007, Sullivan became the Ontario city attorney.

The jobs essentially placed Sullivan as the legal counsel for a generation of city councilors and mayors in both cities. He was a mainstay at Vale and Ontario city council meetings and often advised elected leaders. 

Sullivan said over the years he grew to respect the citizen legislators on the city councils.

“I liked the people in city government. The respect was because it is really a thankless job,” he said.

Sullivan’s job translated into a lot of late nights at city council meetings but he said the experience was rewarding.

Sullivan also said as a city attorney his job was to “always try to maintain objectivity.”

“My job was to get things back on an even keel. I was to give legal advice they could use and not make them feel I was taking sides. Sometimes that is difficult to do,” said Sullivan.

Even in the longest meetings, Sullivan said he had to be focused.

“You have to be alert and paying attention,” he said.

He said he valued the relationships he formed over the years.

“And those moments of satisfaction when someone came back and said ‘you did a great job on that case,’” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said he also worked hard to keep his job and his family life in perspective.

“I didn’t feel like it (the job) was an essential part of my personality,” he said.

Sullivan said the polarization of the judicial system lingers as a major concern.

“The fact in some of the higher levels of government there are many people that are using the law to accumulate power. That concerns me,” he said.

Sullivan said the tone of the nation is changed since he was a young man.

“I think in America in the era I was growing up, there were a lot of things happening at the federal level people in the law profession could feel good about. I am afraid the idealism with being in government is being lost,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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