Dominating the news in the Biggest Little at the end of last week and over the weekend — and rightfully so — was the passing of former Governor Bruce G. Sundlun. It was amazing to follow the conversations on talk radio and the reader comments on local newspaper websites. One thing is for certain: Captain Blowhard will always be as controversial as he was larger-than-life.
And yes, the Sundlun nickname "Captain Blowhard," originated right here in the Providence Phoenix's "Cool, Cool World" column. (You didn't actually expect the BeloJo editors to mention the Phoenix or this column when the paper referred to "Captain Blowhard" in any of the stories about the former governor's passing, did you?)
I recall meeting Marjorie Sundlun, one of the Captain's many ex-wives, at an event at Brown University one evening before the terrible automobile accident that left her seriously injured. She was Rhode Island's First Lady, the Governor's wife, and, when introduced to me that night, she asked if I had created the name "Captain Blowhard."
I acknowledged that I had. (Aside: I'd have to say that my old writing partner Chip "Phillipe" Young and I probably created an equal number of nicknames for this column — but "Captain Blowhard" is mine. One of my favorites of Chip's was his name for Newport's society doyenne, Eileen Slocum — "Jurassic Spice.") Marjorie's response was to break into a wide smile and blurt out, "It's perfect." And I was just on the verge of moistening my slacks in panic.
Over the years, we wrote about the Captain and usually not in glowing terms. Like the rest of the media, we tended to focus on his foibles and numerous embarrassing moments: the raccoon shooting, the plastic fork imbroglio, encounters in bank lines, and the surprise appearance by a child born out-of-wedlock. And then there was the merely colorful: showing up in the wee hours at downtown coffee shops in pajamas and bathrobe, posing in coonskin cap — sans further clothing — for a charity calendar, challenging a reporter half his age to a foot race up the State House stairs, etc. I would challenge any official or amateur Rhody historian to come up with the name of another major elected official in Vo Dilun history even remotely as entertaining as the Captain.
I will not detail his achievements as governor (the airport expansion, creation of the convention center, handling of the banking crisis, and all the rest). These were well-documented in recent days in the many paeans to his governorship and they are real, concrete, and impressive. I just say, unequivocally, that Bruce G. "Captain Blowhard" Sundlun was a true leader.
I had a few adventures with the Captain. On a couple of occasions he called me up at my loft on Summer Street in South Providence (the Casual Research Institute) to give me his spin on the news. Naturally, I was flattered (and a little shocked) that the governor would be calling the notorious Rudy Cheeks to chew the fat a little (you can be sure that he had a lengthy contact list). I assumed he was hoping to head me off at the pass and shape whatever I might be writing about or urge me to introduce a topic that he thought was important. And perhaps his input did have some influence on what I wrote, if I chose to write about the issue he was calling about (and sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't). But this wouldn't be until I did a little more research on my own and talked to a few more people-in-the-know who might have a different take.