The Sullivan family’s 16 children

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Jonathan Jasper (Jack) Sullivan and wife Bertha Phillips Sullivan were married on Jan. 25, 1909 in the home of the bride at Route 1, Selma.

He was 19 and she was 17.

Jack was born May, 22, 1889 on a Johnston County farm near Selma and died in 1976. Bertha was born in Wayne County on Jan. 28, 1891 and died in 1972.

The couple was married for 63 years and the first time they were separated was when she died.

The couple met in 1908 when they were working in a cotton patch on the farm.

After their marriage, the Sullivans spent the rest of their lives farming and raising a family not far from where Jack was born.

When any couple is married for 50 years it is an amazing accomplishment worth celebrating — and this one was no different.

Descendants of Jack and Bertha Sullivan, and there are a bunch of them, gathered last Saturday, Aug. 18 in the North Johnston High School cafeteria in Kenly for the family’s 42nd annual reunion to celebrate, reminisce and recall highlights of their lives, some true, some slightly true, yet mostly fun and always interesting.

The story of Jack and Bertha Sullivan is not unlike any others, but with the help of facts provided in newspaper articles by Smithfield Herald reporters Doris Cannon in 1971 and Mike Parker in the early 1990s and from talking with descendants who attended the recent reunion we now have, as news commentator Paul Harvey called it, “The Rest of The Story.”

The Sullivans had 16 children, nine sons and seven daughters.

All were born in the home, most of them without a doctor being present.

They were, in order, Cretta in 1910, Leland in 1912, Rosa in 1913, Woodrow in 1916, Wilmar in 1918, Joseph in 1919, Dorothy in 1921 and Virginia in 1923.

The second wave included Irving in 1924, Blanche in 1925, C.D. in 1927, Geraldine in 1928, Marverine in 1930, Billy in 1932, Tom in 1934 and Gene in 1938.

All told, Jack and Bertha Sullivan had 16 children spanning a period of 28 years.

Furthermore, they had children in school from 1915 until 1956, more than 40 years.

As son Joseph once said, “We knew another child was on the way when they bundled us off to the neighbors.”

Gene Autry Sullivan, the youngest of the children and the one who organizes the reunion each year, said he was told he was named after legendary cowboy movie star Gene Autry “because his parents had run out of names by then.”

The most amazing fact of all is not only did Jack and Bertha Sullivan celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, but so did all their 13 children who married along with three grandchildren (so far).

Jack Sullivan, known for his sense of humor, once said in his later years he was happy all his 16 children were “living, married and had fairly good sense.”

Sullivan added if he had it all to do over again he would not change a thing, except “maybe not whup the younguns as much.”

Bertha Sullivan said cooperation was the key to a successful marriage.

During the reunion last weekend the story was told and retold about the time all 16 Sullivan children came to visit their mother while she was in the hospital suffering from a broken shoulder.

As they headed into her room they were stopped by a hospital employee who said, “I’m sorry, only the children are allowed to go in.”

“We ARE the children,” was the unified response, leaving the hospital attendant speechless.

Keith Barnes, a Wilson storyteller and author, is news editor of the Kenly News, where this column originally appeared.