Conversation with Kara Sundlun
“The universal lessons in both the film and the book are about survival, the human spirit, and healing.”
By Cindy Mindell
In 1993, then-Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun received an unusual bit of news: 17-year-old Kara Hewes from Michigan was suing him for paternity and college tuition. Over the next 20 years, a relationship would grow between the two, chronicled in a recently-published book by Kara, who took back her father’s surname after he accepted her back into his life. An Emmy Award-winning TV journalist and news anchor at WFSB in Hartford, Kara also helps tell the story of her father’s harrowing experience as a bomber pilot in World War II, as narrator and co-producer of a new documentary film, “Above and Beyond: Bruce Sundlun’s Incredible WWII Journey,” which will have its Connecticut premiere at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 15.
Kara Sundlun spoke with the Ledger about her late father’s extraordinary life and what it’s been like to pay tribute to the father she met for the first time at age 18.
Q: How did the book and film projects come about?
A: My father passed away three years ago. The World War II Foundation, which is a Rhode Island-based non-profit organization whose mission is to tell World War II history through film, had started interviewing him when he was still alive because they had heard about his amazing escape story. After he passed, they contacted me and said, “We really want to make this film, we want it to be our next project, would you help us fundraise for it?”
I said “sure,” and at the same time, I was considering writing a book called Finding Dad: From “Love Child” to Daughter, about my journey to find my father and ultimately, about the relationship we formed and the lessons I learned about forgiveness and making way for new things, because my dad and I had an amazing relationship even though I didn’t get to know him until I was 18.
So these two separate projects were growing as ideas. I think that my dad must have been pulling strings from the “other side” because my book and the film were released within a couple of months of each other.
Given that the World War II Foundation people know I have a background in television and a special relationship with my father, they said, “We want you to come with us and retrace your father’s steps from where he was shot down and we’re going to tell it from a daughter’s perspective finding out what happened to her father.”
Q: How did your father get involved in the war effort?
A: He grew up in Providence, R.I., he was at Williams College, and the day after Pearl Harbor, no students were left; they all enlisted. He had a private pilot’s license already and really wanted to be a pilot even though at the time the recruiters were saying that the life expectancy of a bomber pilot in Europe was about seven days. He said, “I don’t care; I’ll go.” He went and got shot down on his 13th mission.
My father was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot and the only one in his crew to not be killed or captured when his plane, the Damn Yankee, was shot down over Belgium on Dec. 1, 1943. Here he is, a young kid, 22 years old, and he’s the pilot, and he said to the crewmembers who were still alive to bail out and they ended up landing right in the middle of a Nazi training camp and were all captured.
My father decided to go down with the plane as it fell another thousand feet and crashed into a field in the tiny town of Jabbeke. His parachute caught at treetop height and everybody assumed he was dead. He remembered Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, which was “hiding in plain sight,” and right in the furrows of the field, he put dirt all over himself and as the Nazis went around scouring for anyone who might have survived, they didn’t see him.
Two boys walked by and he said, “English, English,” and they brought him to a house where the people spoke English. People told him to go into hiding but he wanted to keep fighting so he would steal bicycles and ride from town to town, from Catholic church to Catholic church. Here’s a Jewish guy, but he remembered that his high school track coach had told him, “Someday you’re going to be somewhere where you don’t know anyone and you’re going to be in trouble. If you ever need help, you go to a priest. If they can’t help you, they’ll know someone who can.”
Moving through the underground, he ultimately makes it to France and joins the French Resistance. Eventually, Allen Dulles [working for the CIA precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, and based in Bern, Switzerland] gets word of him and is so impressed that he makes him an OSS agent.
Q: What do you know of your father’s Jewish life?
A: I’m doing a benefit screening and book-signing at Temple Beth-El in Providence, R.I., where my father was the president. He didn’t consider himself a religious man but he did think it was important to honor his Jewish heritage. At the time when he was governor, he was the only Jewish governor in America and traveled with President Clinton to help work on the peace accords in Israel.
In World War II, he had to hide being Jewish and when he came back he went to Harvard Law School. He worked for the Kennedy administration. He was very much in that blue blood society where it was not acceptable really to be Jewish. So he did not know what to do with his Jewish heritage as a younger man, assimilating and even trying to hide it at times.
Later in life, it became important for him to give back, to become president of his temple. His father, Walter Sundlun, was also president of the temple and was one of the first Jewish people to run for Senate.
Q: What’s the story behind Finding Dad?
A: I was born out of wedlock. My father was the CEO of Executive Jet Aviation, a private jet company, now NetJets, and my mom was his chief flight attendant.
My mom got pregnant, they weren’t married, she chose to have me alone. He chose to not accept me and to take the position he didn’t know if I was his or not. It was a painful experience in her life and certainly for me; I grew up without him. One night, when I was 13, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw my father on CNN running for governor. My mom had always told me his name, and that began the journey.
I reached out and it wasn’t easy at first; he was resistant and the story is really about my determination to not only meet him but to have a place in his life. Ultimately, he became a big national news story: he was a sitting governor with a lovechild that no one knew about. We ended up going on TV and he announced to the world, “I’m going to accept her as my daughter but under one condition: I want you to come live with me so I can get to know you”, and he agreed to help pay for college. I left the apartment in Michigan where I lived with my mom and moved into his beautiful estate, and that began the story of us building this amazing relationship.
Q: What did you get out of writing the book and being involved in the film?
A: The movie and the book are related, even though I didn’t know it when I was writing the book: the final chapter of Finding Dad is “Coming Full Circle in His Footsteps.” The lessons of the book are really about forgiveness and I knew I had to forgive my dad for the mistakes he’d made about not accepting me if I wanted to get the happy ending. That forgiveness made way for this really special relationship that changed my life and his. But the compassion lesson came when I walked his footsteps and I really understood the why. For me, the ‘why’ was revealed on those fields in Belgium, when I realized, this is where he stopped living from his heart, this is where he learned to just fight, this is where he built up so many walls just trying to stay alive – for good reason.
But later on, people would say that having a daughter in his life softened him and that family became really important. He really did make it up to me and he was a wonderful grandfather to my two children and he was a great role model for [my husband] Dennis [House] – they were very close.
Even though I only met him for the first time when I was 18, I say in the book that there’s a major transformational effect and it’s never too late to heal. This whole process has also been very healing for me. Even though he’s passed on, I can feel his presence guiding me through this process.
I’m able not only to share the importance of the history, but the universal lessons in both the film and the book are about survival, the human spirit, and healing.
Above and Beyond: Bruce Sundlun’s Incredible WW II Journey will be presented at the Mandell JCC Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, Mar. 15, 1 p.m., at Spotlight Theatre, 39 Front St., Hartford, followed by a panel discussion with writer-producer Tim Gray, co-producer Kara Sundlun, and moderator Dennis House. For information: hjff.org, (860) 231-6316.