WOONSOCKET – Former Gov. Bruce Sundlun died Thursday at the age of 91, leaving what is likely to be viewed as a significant but controversial impact on the state he headed for two terms in the Governor’s office.
Sundlun, who ran three times to win his first term as Governor in 1991, put the wheels in motion for construction of the state’s modern T.F. Green Airport in Warwick by the time he left office.
But it was his decision to close the state’s credit unions and banks shortly after being sworn-in in January 1991 that drew the strongest emotions about him among city residents on Thursday.
Sundlun followed the lead of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he opted to close the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corp. (RISDIC) insured institutions after being told their insurer had become insolvent and runs on the institutions’ deposits were about to unfold.
The RISDIC institutions across the state, including Marquette Credit Union in Woonsocket, were ordered closed and depositors showing up for regular business hours found State Troopers in the lobby to keep order.
The new governor’s takeover of the institutions even included an overnight shutdown of the institutions’ ATMs to protect assets for an as yet undetermined solution.
The swift and decisive action made Sundlun an immediate enemy among the RISDIC institutions’ large depositors and borrowers and threatened confidence in the state’s economic future.
As retired businessman Terry McKenna saw it Thursday, Sundlun was “a tough guy, a very tough guy.”
While among those who believe to this day Sundlun had other alternatives than to close the institutions, McKenna said Sundlun was successful as Governor of Rhode Island largely because of his ability to select a good team of state administrators — the late Maurice Paradis of North Smithfield, among them.
Sundlun named Paradis, a Providence College business professor and CEO with large accounting firms, to head the state’s Department of Business Regulation. In that role, Paradis had day-to-day contact with RISDIC principals and participated in the preparation of a receivership for the institutions deemed too troubled to reopen.
Marquette Credit Union, a RISDIC insured institution with more than $327 million in deposits, was included on the list of insolvent institutions and held in state management while a bailout was plan was considered by the Sundlun administration and the General Assembly.
McKenna believes the actual red ink to be covered at the RISDIC institutions amounted to about $13 million but later became as much as $436 million while the state’s Depositor Economic Protection Corp. bailout was put into place. “I had many disagreements with him on how the situation was handled,” McKenna said.
McKenna headed an active depositor group while the RISDIC bailout worked to obtain needed financing and spoke loudly at rallies that carried local senior citizens to corridors of the State House in protest of Sundlun’s solution efforts. More agitated factions of the depositor group became physical at one encounter with Sundlun, rocking his car as he arrived at an event. Sundlun, tempered by service as a World War II B-17 bomber pilot over Europe, paid no mind to the display of anger and went into the event after working his way through the gathered crowd.
Another of Marquette’s local depositors, Steve Levinson, also still disagrees with Sundlun’s early steps in the crisis and work on a bailout plan that initially provided depositors in each institution with just a percentage of the assets liquated from their institution.
Levinson had meetings with Sundlun on the fate of the institutions and believes it was the involvement of local General Assembly members spurred by the depositor outcries that resulted in the modified solution that became DEPCO.
“I always felt he did the wrong thing politically and economically for the state,” Levinson said.
Despite their views, the local depositors were among the Marquette customers who saw Sundlun in photographs taken at the Providence Post Office smiling widely as the state mailed out checks returning the depositors savings with a share of interest 18 months later.
Levinson said he received his money “along with everyone else,” but still remembers clearly how long it took for that mailing to happen in July of 1992.
Former Mayor Charles C. Baldelli had much fonder memories of the late Governor, who always took the time to mention his family’s ties to Woonsocket during visits to the city.
“He had a real interesting life,” Baldelli, the city’s mayor from 1985 to 1989, said Thursday.
Baldelli was working a state job in Providence at the time Sundlun took office and had a somewhat inside view as to what was involved in the state’s handling of the banking crisis.
Sundlun’s decision to close the RIDIC institutions did come from the Roosevelt play book for the nation’s financial crash of 1929, but it was still a decisive move to protect the depositors from a run-off of assets, according to Baldelli.
“He shutdown all the credit unions and banks and no one knew if they were going to get their money back,” Baldelli said. “It was quite a quandry for people in the city,” he said.
Sundlun’s personality didn’t quite help the situation, according to the former mayor. “He had to reconcile this with everyone and you know he was quite a contentious person,” Baldelli said. “People either loved him or they hated him,” Baldelli said.
While best known for closing the RISDIC institutions and mailing out those checks to the depositors in the end, Baldelli said he liked Sundlun most for his World War II service.
“His adventures in Europe during the war would make a good movie,” he said. Sundlun’s plane was shot down over Belgium during a mission and he made his escape across France with the help of people he met along the way or by his own devices, Baldelli said.
“It was a very interesting story and I always enjoyed hearing him tell it,” Baldelli said. Sundlun was also close to Woonsocket’s late Mayor Francis Lanctot and had benefited from Lanctot’s support during his campaigns, Baldelli said.
While there is much to say about Sundlun as Governor of Rhode Island, Baldelli said he likes the fact the former Governor was able to build a great airport for the state as a lasting reminder of his time office. “T.F. Greene is the best airport in the country to fly in and out of,” Baldelli said.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed issued a statement Thursday also pointed to Sundlun as having enjoyed “a remarkable life.”
The Senator noted Sundlun was a decorated World War II pilot and distinguished Governor. “Bruce Sundlun devoted his career to our state and the nation,” Reed said. “He was an inspiring public servant who exemplified selfless sacrifice and decency,” Reed said. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse who served as legal counsel to Sundlun during his time as Governor, issued condolences to Sundlun’s family along with U.S. Rep. James Langevin and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. Cicilline, representative for Woonsocket, said he joined other residents of the state in mourning the passing of Bruce Sundlun.
“Bruce, who led Rhode Island through some very difficult times, lived a life committed to public service, serving his country with great honor at home and abroad,” Cicilline said. “He distinguished himself as a patriotic war hero, talented business leader, spirited athlete and gifted politician,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Sundlun family. He will be sorely missed,” Cicilline said.
Sundlun’s family said Thursday he died at home on Jamestown. He was born in Providence and earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College and his law degree from Harvard University. He was a CEO for the Outlet Company of Providence and an aviation firm before becoming Governor. He also taught government courses at Rhode Island colleges after his retirement.
Sundlun leaves a wife and four children. His funeral arrangements are incomplete.