If you’re from Peoria, chances are you know a Sullivan. You can tell them by the values instilled by their late Irish-Catholic mother: a strong work ethic, an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to giving back.
Inside the break room at Everyday Discoveries Preschool and Daycare, owners Susie Blasek and Maureen “Mo” Baumgarten laugh and laugh, childhood memories rolling fresh off their tongues. They quiet only briefly to tend to business matters, as a teacher pokes her head into the room. In this facility on Peoria’s north end, the two sisters are licensed for 138 children, ages six weeks to five years, and at least one is always on call—a tenet of a business rooted in open communication and trust.
As childcare director and curriculum director respectively, Susie and Mo’s combined energy is a surefire force for early childhood development. Their philosophy is “play with a purpose and quality care,” Mo explains, seeking to transform spontaneous play into learning experiences. It’s an effortless mission for these veterans of child rearing and relationship building—Susie is number five and Mo the tenth and youngest in a family of ten.
Normal Is As Normal Does
Becky Blasek (#7) rattles off the order, rapid-fire: Mike, Margaret, Mary, Pat, Susie, Tracy, me, Colleen, Dodie, Mo. “Between Mike and Mo, I think there was 18 years,” she says, counting on her hand—each digit a sibling. “The biggest gap is between myself and Tracy”—born nearly two years apart. “To us, it was normal!” she assures. But a quick look at the aggregate success of the 10 siblings is anything but typical.
Half of them launched successful careers and followed callings in a variety of fields: Margaret Walter: the well-respected, retired dialysis nurse; Mary Arnold: a creative genius, stay-at-home mother of three, and volunteer for organizations like St. Mark’s, ELITE and CASA; Tracy Meisinger: dental hygienist, office manager, 12-time marathoner and 20-time St. Jude runner; Colleen DeFord: sewing extraordinaire, office manager and lifelong volunteer; and Dodie Gomer: community advocate, strategic planner and environmental health safety competency supervisor at Caterpillar.
All five were integral supporters of the entrepreneurial ventures of the other five, who started their own businesses. There’s Mike, a.k.a. “Sully”: Peoria’s favorite restaurateur, who passed away from cancer in 2010, leaving behind a formidable legacy through a string of local establishments; Pat: the renowned local developer, co-owner of JP Companies and Kelleher’s Irish Pub & Eatery; Susie and Mo: masterminds of daycare; and Becky, who co-owns and operates Peoria Flag & Decorating with her husband, John Blasek.
This year, the Blaseks are celebrating 60 years at the Peoria Heights staple, also known as Peoria’s “Original Party Goods Store.” The secret of their success? A willingness to evolve, Becky says, detailing how the business grew over the years, branching out from convention and trade show displays into retail. The small shop now also features Stars and Stitches, a personalized children’s boutique run by Becky’s daughters, Kari and Angie, and niece Molly (Pat’s daughter), with a range of other family members working there from time to time. This atmosphere of family sets the business apart, Becky suggests, noting that personalization and personal service have been their best defense against the threats of online and big-box competition. “We know our customers,” she affirms.
One might say that attention to detail and the ability to juggle the preferences of multiple customers is bred into the Sullivans. Each sibling is something of an expert in reading people, Becky notes. “We always did stuff together—we were never alone. And,” she adds with a laugh, “I’ve never not shared a bedroom! Looking back, okay, it was crazy. But to us, it was normal.”
Today, Dodie (#9) says, “normal” is 100-plus family members gathering for holiday festivities in Becky’s home—a place she bought solely to accommodate everyone, she jokes. The tight-knit family comes together often—for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day and for a monthly “Sisters’ Breakfast”—the 8am Saturday ritual started by Colleen (#8). It’s become something of a sacramental rite—a chance to catch up, swap stories and laugh.
“Colleen doesn’t realize what a legacy [the breakfast] is,” suggests Dodie. “Not everyone can come every time. But [everyone] came the first Saturday after we lost Mike.”
From Humble Beginnings
Mike “Sully” Sullivan (#1), a Vietnam vet, just might have been the hardest-working Sullivan, but he wouldn’t have told you so. As the eldest, perhaps he felt it his duty to care for his younger siblings and help the family financially. At a young age, Mike worked at a dime store to help put food on the table and gifts under the Christmas tree. Dodie recalls one memorable December: “I still have my toy—it’s a two-foot, battery-operated monkey that roller-skates. Of all the toys that got ruined and thrown away, I kept that toy. I think in my heart I knew where it came from,” she says, suggesting Mike shared an early lesson in resilience with his siblings.
“When you fall, you have three choices,” she continues, paraphrasing a message from Bounce, a bestseller by author Matthew Syed. “You fall like an egg and fall apart; you fall like a fresh tomato [and] you’re bruised and oozing… or you bounce—like a super-ball. The book doesn’t say the next part: that your super-ball will not bounce if you don’t have faith. You have to have a foundation, and our family has that.”
“Mike appreciated life at an early age,” adds Mo (#10). “He was more about building relationships and connecting with people than having all the money in the world.” He was always the jokester, everyone agrees, who faced adversity with laughter—a trait the whole family picked up from their mother. And the strategy worked, adds Susie (#5). “We were dirt-poor, but we didn’t know it, and we were still very proud.”
At age 17, Colleen Mary (Kelleher) Sullivan moved to Peoria from Elkader, Iowa, with a dream to follow her sister to nursing school. Instead, she met and married another Iowa transplant, Harold Tom Sullivan. The couple focused on building a family, and Colleen put her career goals on hold. After serving in World War II, Harold returned to Peoria and sold shoes at Bergner’s—the kids always had a decent pair. But he was a different man after the war, and much of the responsibility for raising the family was placed on Colleen.
“Dad was gone a lot, and we accepted it,” Pat (#4) puts it simply, detailing how he went to work with his brother as a youngster. His first job, at age 11, was a morning paper route. He woke daily at 4am—early enough, he jokes, to beat his eight sisters into the shared bathroom. “[Mom] made sure I was up and… had something [to eat] before that paper route in the middle of winter.”
By 13, Pat was working at Columbia Rug, where he spent the next eight years taking the bus downtown after school to learn the trade. “The installers liked to teach me because I worked hard,” he notes. That work ethic earned him a floor-covering certificate just out of high school and laid the foundation for his career as a developer. “I think it’s the hard work that really teaches us,” he continues, sharing memories of whitewashing the family’s basement coal room every spring so a local carpenter could rent the space. “This guy liked it because he could put his boards down and make whatever he was making down there… and we ended up with a little extra money for groceries and utilities.
“People ask, ‘Where do you get the vision for all these buildings downtown?’ Well… my brother and I both got it instilled in us from my mom—and from cleaning up our dirty coal basement and making it nice enough for this guy to have rented it,” he laughs.
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
Having grown up poor during the Depression, Colleen Sullivan knew how to stretch a meal, her kids attest. Her specialty: anything that could feed an army of 12. “[She] always cooked ham and beans, beef stew—the kind of stuff you had for big families,” notes Margaret (#2).
“I call them ‘Depression cooks,’” Pat says. “She had more recipes for wild game and fish than anyone I know.”
“The thing about mom, [she] could take a pound of meat and make a casserole for 11… and it was good!” Becky chuckles. “She never let us know that we didn’t have money.”
“Poor doesn’t know poor,” Pat adds. “It might just be bread and gravy… [but] you try to make the best of it,” he says with a smile. “You just survive, and you learn off it.”
Family dinners were mandatory in the Sullivan home, but the only way all 12 could eat together was to join two long picnic tables in the kitchen. Margaret, the first to marry, recalls her now-husband Chuck’s first family dinner. Seated at the table, Pat turned to Susie: “Is it your turn or mine?” Susie replied: “No, Pat, you were last week. It’s my turn.” She got up from the table and left the room. Chuck watched, eyes wide, and quietly asked, “Turn for what?” as their mother began serving the meal. “Well, when we have a guest we have to take turns skipping dinner,” Pat deadpanned.
“Poor Chuck believed it,” Becky confirms, laughing. “That’s their kind of humor.”
“We are really good at laughing at ourselves,” says Dodie. “This is my view: my mother specifically raised us to make other people successful. No matter what we did… we needed to be thinking about someone else. I don’t know if we really knew our economic bracket in life because we were always taking care of [others],” she explains, offering an example. When she and Colleen were nine years old, they were invited to a friend’s birthday party.
“She… lived in a beautiful home with a harp and baby grand in the living room; they went on vacations and belonged to the Ivy Club,” Dodie remembers. “As my mom was getting us ready, she said, ‘Now, your job is to make sure [Jane] has a beautiful and fun birthday party. Make sure you make her laugh.’ I remember… thinking ‘Are you kidding me? [Jane] is going to get Barbie and Ken and the camper—she’s going to get it all! You’re afraid she’s not going to have a good time?!’ And she said, ‘Now Dodie, somebody is going to be jealous of [Jane] today, and you have to make sure she’s laughing so much that she doesn’t have time to see that.’”
Just Do It
After having Mo, Colleen Sullivan went back to work as a jury commissioner at the Peoria County Courthouse, taking the bus downtown every day for 33 years, before retiring in 1999 at the age of 75. That’s how the family works—hard and without complaint—a trait that landed many a young Sullivan sister a waitressing job at Bergner’s downtown tea room, where the family’s reputation preceded them. And this work ethic has stayed with the sisters well beyond childhood.
“That’s something that was instilled in us,” explains Mo. “You don’t complain; you just do it.”
“A difficult thing for the Sullivans is a challenge—we don’t call it difficult until after it’s over,” Susie says, recalling her time working 60 hours a week while going to school and raising two kids as a single mom. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh my God! I hate this! It’s so hard!’ But when [the kids] went off to college, I thought, ‘Well, I never want to do that again!’” she laughs. “I don’t think we think it’s hard at the time, just more of a challenge.”
Susie’s informal training in education began when her mother returned to work. Thirteen years Mo’s senior, “[She] was like my baby growing up,” Susie explains. Later, she’d be the go-to nanny for many of her nieces and nephews, her house always zoned for kids. Pursuing a variety of “unfulfilling” career paths, she eventually realized her passion for kids was actually a vocation. “It’s not work to me,” she says matter-of-factly. “That’s why I didn’t know it was a career.”
Meanwhile, Mo was an aunt at age five, and babysitter for her siblings’ many kids by age 11. But it was growing up with education sage John Meisinger (Tracy’s husband) as her brother-in-law that really drew her into teaching. She earned a degree in early childhood and elementary education from Eastern Illinois University, returning to Peoria to teach inner-city kids at the public school she attended—Franklin Elementary—determined to show them, “I grew up here and you can, too.”
Back at Everyday Discoveries, Susie and Mo stress the importance of developing relationships, not only with the children there, but with their parents as well—both are necessary to build a foundation for continued education. “That’s something we do well—we can talk to anybody,” says Mo. “We have nine brothers and sisters that all have different personalities… that gives you some backbone on how to deal with people.”
Family dynamics is a Sullivan specialty, to be sure. In July, the siblings gathered at Jim’s Steakhouse to celebrate Mo—the baby of the bunch—turning 50 years old. As the family arrived, the small dining room got louder.
“Not only are the 10 brothers and sisters rooted in Peoria, all of our nieces and nephews, except for six of the 23, and… 32 greats [live here],” says Mo. “Fifteen years ago, Sully said we need nametags to keep all these people straight,” she laughs. Today, the family has a shared calendar and even a Facebook page to help manage the herd.
“At Christmastime… there’s almost 100 people, and it’s crazy. I remember… someone asked, ‘What’s that like?’” Mo says. “For us, it’s normal… It’s chaos, but it’s our chaos.” And as her siblings celebrate her birthday, the mirth can be heard out on Jefferson Street—a family rooted in laughter. iBi