VENTURA, CALIFORNIA/TEWKSBURY — A nurse in the maternity ward of a California hospital deals with working in the age of COVID-19 as some of these new mothers are separated from their newborns when the moms test positive for COVID. This nurse is grieving the loss of the father of her nine children and helping her family cope with feelings on the fly. Nothing comes easy. There are 12-hour shifts and college classes. Of course there are tears, and through it all she seeks to recover as she meditates and prays during her walks along a Ventura, California beach. The sun rises and the sun sets. And Mary Hill-Sullivan sees the light. There is death and there is life. Another grandchild is born. His name is Martin, named after the grandfather that he will never know.
Mary Hill-Sullivan learned a lot about life in Tewksbury growing up in a large family and playing sports. She played a strong supporting role on a championship high school basketball team in the winter of 1982, leaving the stardom for other teammates while she concentrated on being the best person that she could possibly be. She fell in love in high school and would raise nine children with Marty Sullivan. Born in Somerville and raised in Wilmington, Sullivan died at 57 after suffering a heart attack on January 24, 2019 in Ventura, California. The couple moved from Wilmington many years ago to Mesa, Arizona and then California seeking the warmth of the sun.
The young woman with Tewksbury roots never stopped learning and never stopped working. Now she has what she calls her “dream job” teaching nursing at Santa Barbara City College. Mary raised her family right and does her job right, teaching other nurses how to cope with anything and everything. The hours were long, but often rewarding. She worried about her kids and did the best that she could. She recently travelled back north for a well-deserved vacation. In life recovery is always important. That role player coming off the TMHS girls’ basketball bench in 1982 had morphed into a “Super Mom.” It was time to kick back and take a break.
We have all known at least one of these “super” people. If we are lucky in life we will meet more than one. A lot of these people seem to get their start in life in Tewksbury. They are solid in a very special way. Sometimes what they do in life is hard to describe. Mary Hill-Sullivan helps to bring the definition of a “Super Mom” into perspective. Often there are no big pronouncements. Actions do speak louder than words. You look at her life and then read the definition of what she does in the Urban Dictionary. Most, if not all of it, fits Mary Hill-Sullivan’s story perfectly.
“Super Moms are fun, energetic moms who love parenting, not the stereotype of the women who wear pearls and greet their mate at the door with casserole in hand. These moms have thrown off the pearls and donned jeans and t-shirts. Instead the habitat they are most likely to be found in is the playground, the grocery store in the organic produce section, the closest library or participating with their kids in any fun activity that you can think of. Not to be confused with moms who think that they are wearing proverbial capes and can do it all. She’s a ‘Super Mom’ who really cares about her kids and is always doing fun things with them.”
When you hear about Mary Hill-Sullivan’s life - especially over the past two years - you marvel at her strength and resilience. You go back to this definition and it all fits. It all makes sense. This strong woman is still caring, still learning, still teaching, still loving her family and coping with the grief and the loss. A strong family really does mean something. For many of us it’s the missing link. Mary Hill-Sullivan can help to teach us what it really means to have a hall of fame heart. This is the story of a very strong mom who learned a lot about raising a family during her time playing sports in the family-orientated town of Tewksbury.
Playing with the best in Tewksbury
She would come off the bench for arguably the greatest girls’ varsity basketball team in Tewksbury Memorial High School history. More often than not she would make a wide open shot behind a pick-and-roll set by a star player. Mary Hill-Sullivan would later become a star in life after learning the ropes in Tewksbury. She also played field hockey and tennis in high school, earning honors that she can’t remember. She would even come back to coach the varsity field hockey and junior varsity basketball teams at TMHS from 1992-94.
“I played field hockey, basketball and tennis in high school,” she remembers. “My love for sports started early at the Shawsheen School. Physical education was always my favorite subject. I still play tennis and I’ve fallen in love with golf.”
That 1982 team is in the TMHS Athletic Hall of Fame along with its’ coach and star player. The 1982 TMHS girls finished that season 20-1, with the only loss coming to Winthrop (64-47) in the Eastern Massachusetts Division II semifinal game played at Watertown High School. Tewksbury went into that contest with a 23 game regular season winning streak. That team was enshrined in the TMHS Athletic Hall of Fame back in 1997. Mary recalls her days coming off the TMHS girls’ basketball bench with great fondness.
“I will always cherish my memories playing basketball at Tewksbury High School. The bonds, camaraderie, the overall excitement of advancing to the playoffs and having so many people in the town coming out to support us was unreal. Barry Sheehan and Donnie Ciampa were such excellent coaches. It was such an honor and a privilege to play for them.”
Tewksbury basketball teammate Robin Riddle remembers Mary as wanting a big family back in high school. “Mary was a great teammate and friend,” says Riddle. “I’m so sorry that Marty passed. She is one strong woman. I just remember how mature she was back in high school. We were in the cafeteria and just talking when she mentioned marrying Marty and wanting kids. I did not expect nine! I really was not sure what I wanted to do with my life back then. I admired her. She is loved by so many people.”
Assistant coach Ciampa always knew that the role player coming off the TMHS bench could be counted on to make the big shot. “Back then Mary was the “off guard” before anyone called it that,” remembers Ciampa. “She would come off the bench and we would run a specific play for her. She was a great set shooter. She loved to shoot the ball.”
That team is remembered not only for its’ Hall of Fame coach and star player, but for a collection of solid role players that helped to develop a style of play that was not typical of varsity girls’ basketball back in 1982. Center and tri-captain Jerrie Bernier would be among the first group of inductees into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1994. Guard Patty Murphy, another tri-captain, had speed to burn and great playmaking ability. Tri-captain June DeStefano led that collection of role players that included guards Sue Rheault and Robin Riddle along with forwards Leanne Stewart, Pam Brabant, Cindy Fentross and Maria Catalano. Chris Kiernan, Shawna Booker, Kris Robinson and Kathy Sullivan rounded out the TMHS roster. Everyone contributed. Everyone worked hard to be the best. And they were.
The TMHS 1982 girls ran a fast break attack, pushing the basketball up the court at every opportunity. They pressed full court and sprung defensive traps on unsuspecting opponents. And they had the best two players in the Merrimack Valley Conference with center Jerrie Bernier and point guard Patty Murphy. Bernier would grab the rebound and get it to Murphy and the TMHS girls would be off and running. This break-out style of play would usually result in a layup or a short Bernier jumper for an easy two points. There was plenty of hard work in practice coupled with a fun, competitive atmosphere for everyone involved. Ciampa remembers just how much fun being around that team was.
“I just remember that practices were so much fun and competitive,” says Ciampa. “They wanted to get better every day. They worked so hard on their defense, shooting and conditioning. We focused on speed and defense, so the one-on-one dribbling defense drills were intense, especially with Suzy Rheault and Murph, Jerry and June. Even running suicide drills, they would be laughing- but they did not want to lose.”
“For a Saturday morning practice, our friends would come and we would make teams and have very intense mixed-gender pick-up games which were always fun and competitive. We had a full house, and just played hoop. No one missed Saturday practice.”
Mary was one of those players who wanted to work hard at practice to get better. She would shoot the basketball until it was time to turn out the lights in the old Tewksbury High School gymnasium. Her coach remembers that he could always count on Mary.
“Mary was a very good athlete and played multiple sports,” says Sheehan. “Her athleticism helped her in our program, as we pressed defensively and ran offensively. She was our best spot-up shooter when we played against zone teams. She was a pleasure to coach.”
One of the best Tewksbury families
The daughter of Edward Hill and the late Patricia (Rooney) Hill was born on May 16, 1965 at Saint John’s Hospital Lowell. She would be one of seven siblings — a close knit Tewksbury family always involved in high school sports and very active members of the Merrimack Valley community. When you mentioned the last name Hill it was always associated with quality of character. Four stars was the rule of the day for this brood, and their daughter would naturally learn from her parents how to raise a large family in all the right ways. She would get plenty of sibling advice from family that includes Eddie Hill (64) Tewksbury High School graduate; Patty (Hill) Cushing (61) Tewksbury High School graduate; Tommy Hill (60) Tewksbury High School graduate; Ann (Hill) Osborne (58) Tewksbury High School graduate; Elaine (Hill) Raposa (55) Tewksbury High School graduate and Susan (Hill) Aja (45), a Wilmington High School graduate.
Mary knew as far back as her junior year at Tewksbury Memorial High School that she wanted a large family. She met Marty Sullivan, who years earlier had told friends that he would marry the girl that he saw from a distance at Saint Dorothy’s Church. They would be married for 36 years. “We met at Hampton Beach the summer before my senior year at Tewksbury High School,” remembers Hill-Sullivan. Hill-Sullivan says that the family was shook to its core when Marty died.
The Sullivans started a family in Massachusetts before deciding to move from Wilmington to Arizona in 1995. “I came across a book titled ‘50 Fabulous Places To Raise Your Family’. Marty and I hated the cold weather, so Arizona was a good fit for us.”
The Sullivans would favor names that began with the letter “K” and so it began with the very large brood that includes Kelly (37) Newport Beach, California; Kyle (35) Gilbert, Arizona; Kevin (33) West Hollywood, California; Keith (31) who is married to Rachel Otero with new baby (Martin Joseph II) Mesa, Arizona; Kimberly (27) married to Londell Lee with three children in Moline, Illinois; Kathryn (24) Ventura, California; Kristen (21) Ventura, California; Kameron (19) Ventura, California and Kara (15) Newport Beach, California.
Mary was sure that she wanted a career where she could impart some of her family/life skills to help others. She thought what better way than a life in nursing? Mary was a good student and always displayed a drive to succeed. And so it began in 1992 when she got her Associates Degree in nursing at Middlesex Community College with a 3.75 GPA. And the thirst for knowledge and learning didn’t stop there. Mary would go on to Grand Canyon University (Bachelor’s in Nursing) BSN RN 4.0 GPA (2010); Arizona State University (Master’s in Nursing Education) MSN RN 4.0 GPA (2013) and finally today where she is pursuing a Post Master’s Nurse Practitioner Certificate in Mental Health with Walden University based in Minnesota.
“My first nursing job was at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge in the medical surgery, then the nursery units before we moved to Arizona in 1995. I worked at Desert Samaritan Hospital in Mesa, Arizona for three years (mother-baby unit) before Chandler Regional Hospital in Chandler, Arizona (seven years in the mother-baby unit) and the Mercy Gilbert Medical Center (10 years, mother-baby unit) before moving to the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, spending another six years in the mother-baby unit.”
Mary was recognized as the Daisy Award recipient in 2011. This is an international recognition honor for nurses. She currently is a tenured (five years) faculty member at Santa Barbara City College, teaching pharmacology and maternal-newborn nursing.
A traumatic time for the family
“COVID-19 hit just one year after Marty’s shocking death. We were barely catching our breath in the grieving process. My children were all on eggshells as I left the house in my scrubs to care for patients in the hospital. In our unit we all took turns caring for new moms who delivered while having COVID-19. The babies were separated from the moms immediately after birth, therefore one of us would care for the baby and one would care for the mom in PPE for 12-plus hours. It has been such a challenge since the “norm” is to keep moms and babies together 24/7. I was working seven days a week as a full-time college professor, then Friday and Saturday night 12-hour shifts at the hospital. In January 2021, I decided to resign from bedside nursing in the hospital and just focus on teaching and my new Nurse Practitioner classes. This move allowed me to go home to Massachusetts for 21 days and visit with my family this past summer — a much needed trip which included time in Tewksbury, Wilmington, Newburyport, Plum Island and Martha’s Vineyard. It was priceless to reconnect with my roots.
“One of our greatest joys as parents was watching all of our kids play sports. Kelly played basketball and soccer at Saint Mary’s High School in Phoenix. Kyle played baseball and football there as well. Kevin was a diver at Hamilton High School in Chandler Arizona, and then went on to make the nationals for diving with the University of California at San Diego. Keith played baseball and college football, Kim played college basketball and Kathryn was the soccer captain at Santa Barbara City College. In high school I was given the nickname “Ice Woman” but my daughter Kristen could be called the female Steph Curry for her three-point shooting. Unfortunately, her dad passed away during her first season playing for Moorpark College and she hasn’t regained the love for the game. Kameron played high school football at Ventura, but COVID-19 and a broken collarbone cut his experience short. Last but certainly not least is Kara, who is enjoying yoga in physical education at Corona Del Mar High School in Newport Beach.
“As most mothers would confess, my children are my world. When Marty and I got married we said that we wanted six children and not many people believed us. I guess we wanted to be over-achievers and had nine instead. Marty passed away five days after our third grandchild was born, and it is so difficult knowing that he will never meet our fourth — his namesake Martin Joseph II, who was born on his mom’s birthday September 25,2021. I couldn’t be more proud of our kids, especially our youngest, Kara who was born with Down Syndrome. She is our everything. Family is so important to every single one of them. My son Keith recently said, “I knew that my parents were crazy, but after going through this and having my first child, I know now that they were insane to have nine.”
“The most important thing that I did after Marty’s death was to put all of us in bereavement counseling. My son Kameron had one-on-one sessions with an amazing therapist who would go to Ventura Hill School every Wednesday and take him out of class for therapy. I was attending the Hospice of Santa Barbara facility, and they offered me free weekly sessions for an entire year. The hardest part has been knowing that two of our children (Kathryn and Kameron) frantically performed CPR on Marty. Watching all of the kids grieve at this level has been beyond heartbreaking. The all are doing so well. I couldn’t be more proud of every single one of them.”
Another important phase this family undertook during this pandemic was seeking out therapy. Grieving the loss of a dad was made much more complicated in so many ways. But once again Mary was undaunted. She would find a way.
“I started Zoom meetings because everyone was in different parts of the country,” she says. “The Zoom meetings were hard to keep up with because everyone was busy with crazy schedules, but I hope that we can get back on them soon. My kids are all very funny with a dry, sarcastic humor. My son Keith does stand-up comedy around the Hollywood-Los Angeles area.”
So the grandmother gets to share some quality family time while also getting to know the next generation in grandkids Aubrey Lee (6), Londell Lee Jr. (5), Aria Lee (2 ½) and new baby Martin.
Mary Hill-Sullivan is 56-years-old and doesn’t hesitate in mentioning her age. She takes pride in the fact that through it all she found time to play tennis and fall in love with golf. Her dad Edward is 86-years-old now. His wife Patricia passed away when she was 73. There should be no doubt that Mary’s mom is looking down at her daughter walking that beach. She is proud. So is dad. They raised a daughter still trying to do the right thing, caring about her friends and family. And as a nurse that caring was a very big part of her job. Mary knows it. She feels it. She imparts that path and caring work ethic to her students every single day of the week.
Her journey began in Tewksbury, and she will never forget the time that she spent helping the 1982 Tewksbury High School girls’ basketball team win a championship. “Super Mom” Mary Hill-Sullivan came off the bench back then to play an important role in a team’s success. These days her role is even more important as a mother, a sister, an educator, a mentor and best friend. Those are all roles that Mary Hill-Sullivan cherishes.
The sun rises and the sun sets. Mary Hill-Sullivan walks the beach. A place where she finds peace.