The Extraordinary Lightness of Being Tom
Tom Sullivan says sighted people view life outside in. Here’s why he chose to see life inside out.
- Written byMichele Garber
Photographed by Lauren Pressey
He lives his life with passionate purpose. A man of immeasurable optimism and courage, he has overcome tremendous adversity, turning his disadvantages into advantages. His joie de vivre is infectious and inspirational. He has an uncanny gift for sharing a narrative, while his genuine love of life and people permeates his every sentence.
Tom Sullivan lives in the celebration of the senses. His stories are infused with the exquisite details of pure sensory experience, leaving the listener to feel as if they were there with him in those moments. He is engaging, sincere, charming and wickedly funny.
Sullivan is often called a renaissance man. He is a humanitarian, a sought-after motivational speaker, a best-selling author, a talented musical performer, producer, composer and a skilled athlete.
At 68, he has the stamina of men half his age, enjoying numerous athletic pursuits. An avid snow-skier, he also competes in marathons and triathlons and is a 21-handicap golfer.
And he’s an occasional thrill-seeker, known to skydive and bungee jump.
Yet it is what Sullivan is unable to do that makes his achievements so remarkable and his story so compelling. He cannot see. He has retrolental fibroplasia—a condition causing loss of vision in premature babies. Tom Sullivan has been blind since birth.
Born in 1947, Sullivan was three months premature. While in the incubator he received too much oxygen, causing the retrolental fibroplasia that left him blind.
Though being blind has presented him with many challenges, Sullivan is not one to lament what others may see as misfortune. On the contrary, he embraces being blind as his destiny, crediting much of his life achievement to the inner strength he developed as a result of his blindness.
As Sullivan puts it, “If I was born three years earlier, I would have been dead because they didn’t have any incubators. And if I had been born eight years later, I would have been probably been able to see. When I look at it today—not as I evolved but today—I think God slotted me exactly where I belong.”
He adds, “I’ve been far more purposeful than I ever would have been had I been able to see.”
Sullivan grew up in the Boston suburb of Scituate, the youngest of three in an Irish-Catholic family. His entrepreneurial father hailed from the Irish village of Kinsale and owned nine Irish pubs by the time Tom was born. Though he loved Tom dearly, he couldn’t accept that he had a blind child—perhaps subconsciously feeling responsible for Tom’s condition.
Tom’s father wouldn’t say the word “blind.” An archetypical proud Irishman, he believed in tough love and thought the best way for his son to thrive was to put him on the street, let him play with kids and find his path.
Tom’s mother viewed the best path for her son quite differently. She was determined for him to be academic and artistic, believing that hard work, commitment and intellectual pursuit would enable him to thrive. His parents were at cross-purposes and eventually divorced.
Ultimately the Sullivans sent young Tom to Perkins School for the Blind in nearby Watertown. Though Perkins is a world-class school situated on an expansive 30-acre campus on the Charles River, it was a poor fit for Sullivan.
Surrounded by a high fence, he viewed Perkins as an isolated world—while the world he dreamed of was a big one. Thus he often behaved mischievously and proudly boasts holding the record for the most Perkins expulsions … a whopping 11.
Fortunately one of those infamous run-ins with school administrators led to the first in a string of Sullivan’s life-shaping encounters, or as he calls them, “People Points.” One night when Sullivan was 8 years old, he snuck into the kitchen, grabbed chocolate chip cookies and gave them to the other boys—who promptly got “cookie crap” all over their sheets.
The next day while Sullivan sat in the principal’s office awaiting his punishment, Helen Keller and her guide Polly Thompson walked in. Keller, a Perkins alum, was there to be honored on her 75th birthday. Polly informed Helen that there was a boy in the office in trouble for stealing cookies.
As Sullivan recalls, “Suddenly I heard this incredible little voice say, ‘Little boy, they tell me you’re a devil. Is that right, little boy?’ And I took her beautiful hand and spelled (signed) ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Good! Keep it up!’” In that one instant, Helen Keller changed Sullivan’s life, for she was essentially telling this rambunctious yet good-natured child that anything is possible.
He adds, “And a big part of the work I do now is telling families, ‘Anything is possible.’”
Another significant People Point happened when Sullivan was about 14. He had a classically trained music teacher named Hank Santos who had played jazz in the USAF Band. Santos knew Sullivan disliked playing classical music, so he would often let him sing standards. Santos taught Sullivan about the great artists of the era, from Count Basie to Cole Porter.
One afternoon Santos informed Sullivan that in lieu of the day’s lesson, he was taking him to his home to play for some guests. As Sullivan recalls, “There were about 20 people.
After we performed, a man came up to me and said, ‘Well, young man, my friend Hank tells me you’re a pretty pissed-off blind kid. Why is that?’” Sullivan launched into a lengthy diatribe of how he’s the best at being blind but can’t find his place in the sighted world, expressing his innumerable frustrations with life.
Finally the man said to Sullivan, “If you’re feeling that sorry for yourself, that anger isn’t going to get you anywhere. You better learn to be a teacher and a better communicator. You better learn how be interactive. And you better get that chip off your shoulder.” Then the man added, “By the way, I’m Martin Luther King.”
Sullivan’s sisters, Jean and Peggy, were quite a bit older than him. So when he was home from Perkins and lacking playmates, he would often play alone in his backyard, acting out childhood fantasies. His metal swing and his radio became his props. The swing doubled as Silver to his Lone Ranger, or a spaceship for his Flash Gordon, and with his radio he solved mysteries with The Shadow.
But his favorite fantasy was pretending to be a Red Sox player. He’d turn on the game, find rocks on the ground, hit them with his Louisville Slugger and run imaginary bases in sync with the player at bat.
On one summer afternoon, a neighborhood kid on the way home from the real game spotted Sullivan sliding into his imaginary home plate. Realizing he was blind, the boy began repeatedly calling him “Blindy.” Infuriated, Sullivan hurled rocks toward the malicious kid until he eventually left. Then he sat down on his swing and wept.
“I realized in that moment that the only way to ever be equal was to work harder, to be better. I’d have to be smarter, a better athlete, a better artist. There was no compromise. If I wanted the world, I’d have to earn it.”
A few weeks later Sullivan had one of his most impactful childhood People Points. It was May 7, 1957 … the day Sullivan decided that no fence was too high to climb. Two brothers had recently moved in next door. Separating their yard from Sullivan’s was an 8-foot, chain-link fence his father had erected around the yard to keep him safe.
Sullivan would hear the boys next door playing catch or wiffle ball. On that fateful day, he decided to finally scale the loathed fence.
As he explains, “I grabbed that fence and pulled myself up, hand over hand, until I got to the top. I stood up there with my arms outstretched; then I leapt into space and crashed to the ground. Billy Hannon came running over and in his thick Boston accent said, ‘Wow! That was a gnarly fall. I’m Bill Hannon.’ I said, ‘I’m Tom Sullivan, and I’m blind.’ Billy replied, ‘Wowwww.’ Then he said the magic words, ‘Wanna play?’ That started a friendship that to this day is the best friend I have. It was the breakthrough. Billy taught me to play baseball, throw a football, box and wrestle. I taught Billy how two little boys could sit on the floor with a tape recorder, make up sound effects and call them movies. I taught Billy how I could read Huck Finn in braille aloud to him, and he could read Tom Sawyer to me. I taught Billy about the four senses, and Billy taught me about rainbows.”
Those People Point moments offered the lessons that became Sullivan’s guiding principles, informing his entire adult life. Helen Keller and Martin Luther King illuminated the human capacity to inspire. Billy Hannon demonstrated the vital importance of true friendship.
And from surviving the cruelty of the neighborhood bully to bravely scaling the fence confining his world, Sullivan learned that to succeed in life one must have courage of conviction and willingness to take passionate risks. As he succinctly puts it, “The drive to succeed is more important than the fear of failure.”
Determined to face future challenges head-on, Sullivan followed the guidance of both of his parents. He diligently continued to pursue his education. And with the help of Bill Hannon and his brother, Michael, he experienced the joys of boyhood: fishing, playing sports and taking the everyday risks that instill courage and confidence in children.
As Sullivan transitioned into adult life, the talents and strengths he’d honed in childhood served him well. He attended Providence College and then Harvard. During his summer breaks he would play gigs in clubs to earn extra cash for his tuition.
Sullivan was comfortable in the realm of celebrities and nightclubs, having grown up around his father’s businesses, and he knew many of the greats of the vaudevillian era. As a 3-year-old he sat in Sophie Tucker’s lap and sang with her. Jimmy Durante taught him the first scale on a piano. He knew Mae West and Jackie Gleason.
One summer while performing in an afterhours club, Sullivan was playing Duke Ellington’s “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good),” when the room suddenly went silent. Sir Duke had walked in. He sat down with Sullivan, and the two sang his iconic tune together.
In the summer of 1968 Sullivan was performing nightly at The Deacon’s Perch on Cape Cod. He was handsome, single and thoroughly enjoying his independence. But his life was about to dramatically change.
Betty White and her husband, Allen Ludden, were performing in summer stock at the Cape Cod Playhouse and became regulars at The Deacon’s Perch. Each night they’d come in to hear Sullivan play their favorite standards. Betty, Allen and Tom became lifelong friends, and Betty remains one of Tom’s closest friends today.
White and Sullivan have written three books together, and she is a second mother to him and honorary grandmother to his children, Blythe and Sully (Tom, Jr.). It was White and her husband who paved the way for Sullivan’s big break into show business, helping him get an agent and land gigs at clubs—leading to his more than 60 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and launching his entertainment career.
That memorable summer of ’68 still held one more life-altering moment, courtesy of the incomparable Betty White. One evening while a flirtatious girl was chatting up Sullivan,
White intervened. “Tom,” she said, “there is a girl that comes in here every night, and if you could see her look at you, you would never date anyone else.”
White pulled Sullivan over to the beautiful blond and introduced them. Her name was Patty Steffen. They sat down together, and the sparks were instant and all-consuming. They fell in love almost immediately, wed soon after and have been happily married for 45 years.
Perhaps no other life event had a greater impact on Sullivan than when he had a near brush with tragedy. Tom, Patty and their two children had recently moved to Los Angeles so he could pursue his entertainment career. On one fateful June day, Patty was grocery shopping while Tom was home with the children.
The phone rang, and Tom was momentarily distracted. In that brief time, he heard a splash in the pool. Blythe, age 3, had fallen in. Tom crawled to the pool and dropped himself into the water. He swam up and down feeling his way along the bottom, desperately searching, frantically calling her name, but he could not find Blythe.
As sheer panicked ensued, he prayed for a miracle, vowing that if God would spare his baby girl, he would devote his life to helping others. In that moment, Sullivan heard the sound of air bubbles. Without the gift of sight, he had to tap into his own capabilities and utilize his acute senses to save his daughter. Following the sound of her bubbles, he pulled Blythe to safety and respirated her.
Blythe’s near-drowning was a turning point in Sullivan’s life. He openly admits that until that day—as is necessary for anyone in show business—his life was primarily about him. But on that day his priorities irreversibly changed.
From then on Sullivan sought to find balance, recognizing the things in life that truly matter. He also became aware that people don’t truly comprehend their capacity. As he says, “You have to celebrate your gifts, not live inside your limitations. Life is the celebration of uniqueness.”
Sullivan went on to pursue his dream of entertaining and inspiring others. He has authored multiple best-sellers—fiction and non-fiction. He has given more than 3,000 motivational speeches, currently giving 60 per year for Allergan. Along with his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, he was a special correspondent on Good Morning America, has had countless film and TV roles, and he sang the national anthem at the 1976 Super Bowl.
Sullivan is a philanthropist and humanitarian. He supports numerous worthy causes, yet he is most proud of his association with the Blind Childrens Center. Over the years he and Patty have raised approximately $5 million to benefit this exceptional organization. Their biggest annual fundraiser, The Tom Sullivan Blind Childrens Center Celebrity Golf Classic, will be held June 22, 2015 at the Palos Verdes Golf Club, with featured speaker and Dodger great Steve Garvey.
Sullivan’s blindness has shaped but not defined his life … poignantly reflected in the words he wants on his tombstone: “Tom Sullivan was a father, a husband, an author, an actor, an athlete, a musician, a humanitarian, who happened to be blind.”
For tickets to The Tom Sullivan Golf Classic, call Laurie Headley at 323-664-2153, ext. 342 or visit blindchildrenscenter.org