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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI courses will produce biography of Sundlun, ‘the Frank Sinatra of Rhode Island’

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Three-semester series to serve as template for 21st Century multimedia nonfiction

KINGSTON, R.I. — February 23, 2012 -- Stephen Frater, a native Rhode Islander, author and new writer-in-residence at the University of Rhode Island, wants to craft the definitive biography of a man whose personality and accomplishments in the state’s military, business, social and political circles make him the “Frank Sinatra of Rhode Island” – former Gov. Bruce Sundlun.

And he’s going to show URI students exactly how to do it.

“It’s a terrific story. He was a true war hero and a man of his time who did it all his way,” Frater said, noting that Sundlun specifically requested Sinatra’s My Way be played at his funeral. “Sundlun was a business tycoon four times over and a towering Rhode Island civic, cultural, business and political leader for decades, not to mention his five marriages and innumerable girlfriends.”

Frater began teaching a three-semester “real world” experiential learning course this semester titled “The Art, Craft and Business of Nonfiction,” in which students will learn how to research and write a biography, secure a literary agent and how to pitch a book to a publishing company in today’s challenging publishing environment.

“We’re at an interesting point,” Frater said. “Last year, Amazon’s digital sales of books outsold paper editions for the first time, and it will never go back. In many sectors of the publishing industry, there is no longer an incubation process to nurture young writers. Schools of Communication and Media, like the Harrington School at URI, have a unique opportunity to step into the breach for the next generation of storytellers because the industry just isn’t financially capable of doing it any longer.”

Frater will incorporate the increasing demand for multimedia products into his course. Students will create an iPad-ready book proposal loaded with digital documents, photos and video to pitch the book to publishers.

Students who did not take the first semester course will still be able to join the project in the second semester in Fall 2012, when they will focus on researching volumes of archival material on loan to the University from the Sundlun estate. Students will conduct interviews, gather primary source information, footnote it and make sure it is properly attributed in a bibliography. They will also create an outline to define the narrative arc of the book.

During the third semester, in Spring 2013, students will cull the information they have collected and frame it into a cohesive story.

And what a story it is.

Born in 1920, Sundlun became a bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces. After being shot down, he evaded capture and fought the Nazis alongside the French Resistance. He was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, to continue to fight behind German lines, a deadly place for any Allied spy/saboteur, much less a Jewish former command pilot.

Sundlun earned several medals from the U.S. and French governments for his bravery, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur.

He became a U.S. Attorney. He opened his own law firm. He founded a jet charter company that is today known as NetJets. He was a founding director of COMSAT, the nations’ first communications satellite venture, appointed by President John F. Kennedy. He was CEO of The Outlet Company, which owned and operated 147 retail stores and 11 radio and television properties. And, of course, he lectured at the University as a Governor-in-Residence.

Sundlun was meticulous in keeping notes, diaries and records of his life, Frater said. Before his death in July, Sundlun had begun work on his autobiography. He had completed about 150 pages, Frater said, but he needed help to flesh out the rest of it.

Frater had spent several weeks with Sundlun in early 2011 while working on his first book, Hell Above Earth, a nonfiction work about World War II pilots. When it came to getting help on his autobiography, the governor turned to Frater, who grew up in the same neighborhood in Providence as Sundlun, on the same street.

A former staff writer for The New York Times Company, Frater agreed to devote last summer to the project, but Sundlun died before it could be completed.

Frater was then contacted by a representative of the Sundlun estate and was permitted to use Sundlun’s archival material to produce the course and an authorized biography.

Last year, he was introduced to URI President David M. Dooley by professor emerita Agnes Doody and the course concept was born.

Frater said that while nearly all Rhode Islanders are familiar with the former governor in one way or another, his hope is that he and the students are able to share Sundlun’s “wild exploits” with a broader audience.

“The challenge of it is, while he’s interesting to Rhode Islanders, we want him to be a character with national appeal,” Frater said. “He really was like a Frank Sinatra, he kind of had that Mad Men appeal, and that’s what we’ll go for commercially, to position him as someone who embodied that 1960s swagger, a man of his times who did it all, and always his way. ”