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Bruce Sundlun, 91; served two terms as R.I. governor

Bruce Sundlun was cheered by supporters after he defeated the incumbent governor, Edward DiPrete, in 1990. Mr. Sundlun reflected on his two terms at the top in 1994 (below). Bruce Sundlun was cheered by supporters after he defeated the incumbent governor, Edward DiPrete, in 1990. Mr. Sundlun reflected on his two terms at the top in 1994 (below). (Associated Press)
Associated Press / July 23, 2011

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JAMESTOWN, R.I. - Bruce Sundlun - a former Democratic governor of Rhode Island, businessman, lawyer, and World War II bomber pilot who was shot down while flying over Belgium - died Thursday evening at his home. He was 91.

Mr. Sundlun died surrounded by his family in Jamestown, the family said in a statement.

“As a husband, father, and grandfather he was our north star,’’ the statement said. “We are deeply grateful for his love and lessons throughout our lives.’’

Governor Lincoln Chafee ordered Rhode Island flags to be lowered to half-staff until Mr. Sundlun is laid to rest.

Mr. Sundlun served two terms as governor. He was confronted with a statewide banking crisis and a budget deficit when he took office in 1991, forcing him to order emergency cuts in spending.

Mr. Sundlun, who was born in Providence, earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College and a law degree from Harvard University.

His education at Williams was interrupted when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He joined the US Army Air Corps and was trained to fly the B-17 bomber because he already had a private pilot’s license. On his 13th mission, his aircraft was shot down over Belgium, and Mr. Sundlun bailed out and spent six months in hiding in occupied Belgium and France before making his way to neutral Switzerland, said family spokeswoman Barbara Cottam. He later went back to school.

Mr. Sundlun was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Cluster, and a Purple Heart for his military service.

“Governor Bruce Sundlun lived an extraordinary life,’’ Chafee said in a statement late Thursday. “But even with all of the events and successes of his long life, he will be best remembered as a governor who guided Rhode Island through difficult times with direction, determination, and a fundamental belief in the people of our state.’’

Chafee said Mr. Sundlun’s “most tangible legacies’’ include the Rhode Island Convention Center, the Providence Place Mall, and the expansion of T.F. Green Airport, where the main terminal now bears his name.

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed and Representative James Langevin, all Rhode Island Democrats, mourned the passing of Mr. Sundlun.

Whitehouse, who served as a policy adviser and counsel to Mr. Sundlun, called him a mentor and said he was one of the most memorable Rhode Islanders in the state’s history.

“But most who knew Bruce will remember him for his personality: warm-hearted and funny, impatient and irrepressible, courageous and determined,’’ Whitehouse said in a statement. “No one who knew Bruce ever doubted where he stood. He was a towering figure in our state’s history and a vibrant figure in the lives of his friends and family.’’

Reed called him “an inspiring public servant who exemplified selfless sacrifice and decency.’’

Langevin, who served with Mr. Sundlun as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention and was a legislator when Mr. Sundlun was governor, called Mr. Sundlun’s life “well lived’’ and “extraordinarily well rounded.’’

In a statement, he recalled inviting Mr. Sundlun to be his guest at the World War II Memorial dedication in Washington and “how proud Bruce was of his country and his fellow veterans who gave their lives for values that he so cherished.’’

Mr. Sundlun leaves his wife, Soozie, four children, and two stepchildren.

“I admired and respected former governor Sundlun and was fortunate to call him both a constituent and a friend,’’ said state Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed. “The Senate sends its deepest condolences to Soozie and the entire Sundlun family.’’