High Profile: Ann T. Sullivan Whitehurst
As many of you know, I very rarely write articles anymore. It’s not because I don’t enjoy writing, but rather my time doesn’t allow me to do so very often. However, every once in a great while, a story comes along, and I feel compelled to share my perspective on something or, in this case, someone truly special.
Five years ago this January, Ann picked up her phone and gave me a ring. At this point, she and I had known each other for quite some time, so naturally she had my direct line. I never will forget when she told me exactly what the magazine’s problem, or rather opportunity, was, in only a way Ann could. It was then that she pitched her idea for her High Profile articles, which have been featured in almost every edition of CVLUX. The idea was very simple—to tell the story of individuals who were truly instrumental in a social dialogue. Some of my favorite profiles over the years have featured John Harris, Dina Juve, and the precocious Greer Grammer. So it seemed only fitting for me to turn the tables, for this, our fifth anniversary edition, and profile one of the most influential woman I know: Ann T. Sullivan Whitehurst.
Ann is a Valley product, reared here in Fresno. She began her career at Community Regional in 1972 as a surgical nurse in ortho and neuro. Her dad was a prominent banker, who, in 1973, asked her to come to work with him at his bank. There, she honed her skills in working with trusts, banking, financial planning, and real estate as his manager. Then in 1980, St. Agnes recruited her to begin a PR program. Soon after, in 1983, that included the Anemic Foundation, at which time she became Vice President of Communication and Foundation. In 1981, she married William Whitehurst, and together they had three handsome sons, William, Winston, and Warren.
Ann was one of the ten Sullivan children, but as her signature joke goes, “After meeting me, you would swear I was an only child.”
This plays into the public persona she has so artfully crafted over the years. There is a direct candor in her approach to life. So many people only remember her as the center of attention, the guest who dominates the room, and drives the conversation. But I know a different side to Ann that very few people ever get too see. There is a deep undercurrent of compassion for others, and a sense of unyielding loyalty, which never wavers. I have seen this devotion for myself, and others, played out many times. Her sons affectionately came to call this “Ann mode” ... but I like thinking of it as full-tilt “Diva.”
When she goes into “Ann mode,” it is used, almost exclusively, to help someone or a cause that is special and dear to her. This is why, when she started, and headed up the Saint Agnes Foundation in 1980, she was perfect for the role. Over her tenure, she raised over 30 million dollars for the hospital and chapel. She did this mainly by using her contacts and demanding that everyone participate. I will never forget when she went into a very prominent businessman’s office, who shall remain nameless, sat there in his chair, waiting for him with her hand on his checkbook. When he entered, she politely asked him for a check. She offered to even make it out for him, and so she did. You have to admire a woman, or anyone really, with this much tenacity. How else are people supposed to know what you want, right?
When researching this article, I went back through all the encounters I’ve had with the beguiling Mrs. Whitehurst, or Mrs. W. for short. Originally, her eldest son William, known to most as Billy, introduced me to Ann. It was a very awkward encounter, which I won’t waste your time by reliving, but let’s just say I made a distinct impression. Perhaps that’s why she now calls me “her Nathan Lane.”
Our relationship began to blossom, and now I find we are practically inseparable; we even do spa day together. But when I first met her, I didn’t really “know” her, if that makes sense. For example, I was always told she was an opera singer and actress, I even have some of her albums, but I didn’t know she was a surgical nurse as well. This explains how she ended up running the Saint Agnes Medical Foundation, and where she developed her love of medicine. I also knew her as “The Diva” because of her infamous red Cadillac convertible, with custom diva license plates, which she flaunted as she tore up and down Van Ness Boulevard. I didn’t realize that at the same time, however, after leaving Saint Agnes, she was running one of the Central Valley’s leading advertising agencies, W.S.W., which stands for the initials of all three of her boys.
And most people don’t even realize that she doesn’t work for me, because I honestly couldn’t afford her, and her actual current day job is that of a nurse case manager. Yes, that’s right ... Mrs. Whitehurst still insists on working, and enjoys every minute of it. You see, she likes to think, and that’s why it is so easy for her to connect people and businesses. It’s that ability to network, and evolve, which makes her so special. She is very fortunate; in life, most people only get to write one story, or novel, if you like to think of it that way. Ann has a whole volume of books, with an enormous cast of characters, some of which I got to chat with for this particular piece.
“The first thing that comes to mind when asked how to describe Ann ... she is one-of-a-kind,” Craig Castro, Executive Vice President, and Corporate Chief Operating Officer of Community Medical Centers recounted to me. “Not only is her presence known in any setting; her opera-like entrances to gatherings always brings a big smile to many faces. But most importantly, Ann is one of those people that can always be counted on to come through when needed.” I asked Craig about what he remembered regarding their first meeting. He laughed ... clearly it was memorable.
“I met Ann in 1985 when we worked together at Saint Agnes. She was the Vice President of the Foundation when I was hired as the hospital’s first systems analyst. She called me in for a meeting in her office the first week I arrived and said, ‘Honey, WE have a problem! How are WE going to fix this botched fundraising computer system project?’ I recall hearing her singing from her office later that day, and could not help but think she was in a better mood.” Perhaps that is why Craig and his wife, Alexandria, asked Ann to sing the “Ave Maria” at their wedding 23 years ago.
Singing was not an anomaly for Ann at the workplace—just talk to Dr. Donald Huene, Orthopedic surgeon. I was lucky enough to accompany him, with Ann, and a small group to the opera a few years ago to see a rousing rendition of Tosca. That evening, he told me how she used to blare the music, and sing at the top of her lungs, while they were scrubbing up for surgery. Recently, Dr. Huene told me another very comical story about Ann and the opera.
“I am a devoted fan of opera, and Ann told me that she was singing the part of Musetta in La Boheme, and invited me backstage to see her after the performance. She put on a spectacular show, dragging around a live dog that just froze, and everyone thought it was a paper mache stage prop. After the production ended, I asked my wife if she would be interested in going backstage, seeing as my RN in the OR I worked with a few days ago had just sung Musetta, and had invited me to join the performers after the show. I told my wife that I had just got acquainted with Ann, and that she might not recognize me, as I really didn’t know her well, explaining that we had just met during surgery a few days prior. When we went backstage, Ann physically hugged me, showering me with kisses and almost knocking us both over. My wife politely asked how the nurses that I actually did know really well would have responded, suggesting that I might not have survived the encounter.”
Her stage presence was apparent at a very young age, according to Richard Spencer, CEO and President of Harris Construction and Spencer Enterprises, when he recounted seeing her on stage for the first time.
“I have known Ann Whitehurst since 1966, when Ann starred in a high school play, and I was a first year teacher. People say that he or she is one-of-a-kind—that phrase was invented to describe Ann. She lights up whatever room she enters with her outrageous personality. In my opinion, however, her most influential role was not on stage but rather as Vice President for the Saint Agnes Medical Center Foundation. The combination of her being a trained nurse and a gregarious solicitor of funds is what she brought to the table, and through that she put Saint Agnes fundraising on the map. She did all this while raising her three boys who are her real crowning achievements.”
After speaking with everyone, I think John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch and Harris Farms said it best. “Ann is full of life and always brings energy, wisdom, and good humor to whatever she pursues. She enthusiastically takes on any new challenge, no matter how big or small.” Not to mention, “Her wonderful singing voice has exceptional range.”
So I suppose the motto of the story is whether she is on stage, in an operating room, or board meeting, Ann has always written her own script. She is a woman in charge of her own destiny, driven by love, loyalty, and devotion. And it is with all this that I take great joy in calling her my friend.
Editor In Chief David Manning
Photographer Don Dizon
Shot on location at the historic Warnors Theatre, courtesy of Dick and Sally Caglia, with hair and makeup provided by The Spa and Hungry Hair Salon at Fig Garden Village.