It is a beautiful sight to drive north on I-91 in the early morning and see the O.J. Thrall family farm on an eastern hillside with its pastures and tobacco and grain fields lying before it. The highway crosses the Farmington River and deer can be seen in the Thrall’s meadows. And so it has been for over 370 years ever since the King of England granted this farmland to the Thrall family, and there they’ve stayed.
O.J. Thrall’s daughter did not follow in the family farm business, but became a prominent citizen in her own right, earning the nickname “The Duchess of Windsor.”
Hazel Thrall Sullivan, who passed away in 2000, lived her 84 years in Windsor just as her ancestors did, but her achievements were world class. During the Depression she graduated from the Chaffee School for Girls and later from Smith College, where she was a great supporter of FDR and called herself a New Deal Democrat. This period included studies in Spain and attendance at the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School in Boston.
She married Frank Sullivan in 1937 and together they had three children. With World War II sweeping the nation, her husband posted in Iran, and three children in her care, Hazel needed to satisfy her great intellect. She joined the League of Women Voters and on the state level served on their state Board of Directors, as an editor of their publication, and on their nominating committee.
In 1944, the chairman of Windsor’s Democratic Party was trying to find a candidate to represent Windsor in Connecticut General Assembly. At the time, Windsor was still a rural, Republican town, and running as a Democrat was, in Hazel’s words, “a lost cause from the start.” She describes being recruited to run in an oral history interview she conducted in 1981:
“The chairman of the Democratic Party here in Windsor [and] I had never met. I understand he was having a difficult time finding candidates to run, whereupon he called the League of Women Voters and said, ‘Would you have anyone to suggest who might run for the office of representative?’ And my name was given.[…] I hadn’t thought of being individually active or seeking public office. So the telephone call came in, […] we talked it over and thought it would be a very interesting experience. It would be fun. Didn’t expect to win, but thought that it would be worth a try.
I did [campaign] with the help of my husband and friends, particularly a group of Republican women and independent women who formed a committee to support me. I did have a platform, and I did have a program, and I did try to be active. Made speeches. Did what every candidate is supposed to do. That was 1944. I’m happy to say that I ran ahead of Roosevelt in the Town of Windsor.”
Ultimately the hard work paid off and she won her election, defeating three-term Republican congressman J. Ford Ransom. It was only the second time a Democrat had held this seat since the Civil War, and the first time a woman held it. She was also the youngest member of congress to be elected that year. Asked what she thought attributed to her victory, she replied:
“I think, first of all, that the Republicans took it for granted that the election ‘belonged’ to them, and were not as active as I was in trying to promote positions, to say where I stood. I think I worked harder at it. At the beginning, I think they had the male chauvinist reaction that here’s a woman nominated, it would be easy enough to defeat her.”
Once in the state legislature, Sullivan became an active promoter of equal pay for female and male school teachers. She also focused on issues such as state income tax, direct primaries, legalized gambling, reduced bus fares between Hartford and Windsor, and child labor. On that front, she took a leading role in the fight for enactment of legislation affecting the age and hours of employment of minors in tobacco fields, a topic close at heart to her family, and something she discusses in her oral history:
“I told you earlier I came from a tobacco family. While I was in the legislature the bill came up to limit child labor on tobacco fields to those fourteen years or older. Therefore I was on the spot. All tobacco farmers were [employing children under the age of fourteen] at that time [including my family]. I had no difficulty with it. I didn’t believe in child labor, and therefore, though I came from the tobacco-growing town of the state, I took my stand and spoke both at the hearing and on the floor of the General Assembly in favor of the bill.[…] I think it was a classic example of ‘can you be true to your principles.’ It wasn’t an easy decision to make; it was a rather difficult decision. But it was clear in my mind all the time.”
In 1946 the press corps voted her as one of the state’s outstanding legislators. In her oral history, she describes her attitude towards making the most of her time in the House:
“Anyone has to make it a full-time job, if you want to be as effective as possible while you’re there. I did not limit myself to the two committees I was on [Education and Public Information]. I was active at public hearings. I spoke on the floor of the House.[…] The Republican speaker used to recognize me after a while by saying, ‘Now we will call on the “Duchess of Windsor.”‘ Those were the years when there was news about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from England, but since I came from the town of Windsor, that was the flippant, good-natured tag I was given.”
After two productive terms in the Assembly, Hazel decided politics were taking too much time away from her family, and she did not run for reelection. Instead, she earned her master’s in education from the University of Hartford in 1962 and four years later pursued post-graduate study at the Institute of American History at Smith. She attended the Institute in Underdeveloped Nations at Claremont College in 1968, and the next year went to the Institute in Economics at the University of New Mexico. With this impressive background, she became a teacher of political science and western civilization for college-bound seniors at Windsor High School for 20 years. A lifelong proponent of higher education, two of her of her children earned PhDs and the other an MD.
Hazel Thrall Sullivan was a Girl Scout leader and served on the Loomis Parents Association, the Connecticut Democratic Federated Women’s Clubs, and was active in Smith College Alumnae activities. She resided in the center of Windsor and from there served her family, town, and state. She made our world a better place.
Originally published in 2000, with updates by Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist, in 2019. Excerpts from Hazel Thrall Sullivan’s oral history courtesy of the Oral History Office (formerly the Center for Oral History) at the University of Connecticut.