Southbay Strong Episode 3: Visionary Conquests

Renowned entertainer and Palos Verdes resident Tom Sullivan cannot see his impact, but his legacies are the stuff of legend. Here is a glimpse of his story.

Posted by Our South Bay on Thursday, September 14, 2017

Visionary Conquests

Renowned entertainer Tom Sullivan cannot see his impact, but his legacies are the stuff of legend.

  • Posted on
    June 8, 2017
  • Series
    Southbay Strong
  • Category
    Health
  • Written by
    Suzanna Cullen Hamilton
  • Photographed by
    Lauren Pressey

Miracles happen every day, but most of us are too self-absorbed to notice life’s highly nuanced gifts. However, when one’s birth and survival are miraculous, perhaps one is gifted with an innate sixth sense that’s highly attuned to life’s finer calibrations.

Palos Verdes resident Tom Sullivan has had an extraordinary life as an acclaimed actor, singer, entertainer, author, speaker, philanthropist, husband and father. He gave Jack Nicklaus a run for his money at Augusta National, and Tom remains an avid skier on some of Colorado’s most demanding slopes.

His autobiographical book, If You Could See What I Hear, was made into a movie in 1982, and he has more books under consideration for movie options. Tom is deeply committed to improving the lives of others and remains an engaged philanthropist globally and locally.

But the single most defining characteristic of Tom is what he does not let define him: He’s been blind since birth.

Born preterm in Boston, Tom was given too much oxygen—resulting in premature retinopathy and permanent blindness. Determined to give his son the same opportunities as seeing children, Tom’s father created “Sullivan’s Rules”—a life guide based on the premise that any negative can be turned into a positive.

When his father erected a high fence to keep Tom from straying into danger, Tom simply climbed the fence and hurled himself down into the neighbor’s yard where he heard other boys playing. After announcing that he was blind, Tom’s life changed when 8-year-old Billy Hannon looked at him and said, “Wow, that was a gnarly fall … wanna play?”

 

Says Tom, “Sixty-two years later Billy is still my best friend. And since that day I’ve lived my life believing that there will always be fences in life, but no fence will ever be too high.”

Much to his mother’s chagrin, Tom departed Harvard University six credits shy of graduating. However, when he soon called from Hollywood to tell her when to watch him on television, she made all of Boston aware of young Tom’s success in Tinseltown.

Tom’s resume of acting, entertaining and singing spans decades.  His keen intellect combined with his engaging storytelling and affable nature made him the perfect guest to banter with Johnny Carson. Sixty-five appearances on The Tonight Show attest to Johnny’s high regard for the charming raconteur.

M*A*S*H, Mork & Mindy, Designing Women and a long list of other shows provided Tom the opportunities to work with some of the most talented, funny, brilliant comedians and actors of the twentieth century. Tom was a feature correspondent on Good Morning America for six years, and he sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl X and again at the 1976 Indianapolis 500.

He wrote and performed “All the Colors of the Heart,” which became the theme song for the debut episode of Highway to Heaven. “I worked with Johnny, Merv, Dinah and Jay, and I know Jimmy. They’re all enormously talented,” says Tom, referring to some of the most renowned entertainers in television.

Tom’s career has spanned decades, genres, mediums and locations, but throughout it all there have been several constant guiding forces in Tom’s life that permitted him to take chances when he felt the faint nudge of a miracle waiting at his fingertips. Three such miracles were literally on the tips of his fingertips, and all coincided for a magnificent lifelong symphony.

Tom was always a gifted musician, and he made money during college by playing the piano at summer resorts and clubs. Cape Cod in the 1960s was still a hidden haven for families on the social register and Boston Brahmins. Tom’s talented touch on the ivories attracted a broad swath of summer visitors, providing the known and the unknown a chance to mingle while listening to his beautiful songs.

Perky and perspicacious Betty White and her husband, Allen Ludden, were frequent guests at the club, where Betty’s quick wit met its match in Tom. A lifelong friendship began in Cape Cod and remains so binding that Betty insisted Tom call her “Mothah” after his mother passed away.

But Betty was not just a fan of Tom’s entertaining qualities, nor was she merely a fearless comedic actress and the first female sitcom producer. Betty added matchmaker to her prolific list of accomplishments when she introduced Tom to a stunning blonde who sat quietly watching him each night. Forty-eight years later, Tom and his beautiful wife, Patty, still get together frequently with Betty to reminisce about the happy collision of destiny and legacy in that small Cape club so many years ago.

Tom’s most significant creation is his book If You Could See What I Hear. The autobiography chronicles his life as a blind person, recounting both his successes and struggles as he remains determined to experience all that life has to offer.

Today at age 70, Tom is busier than ever. After writing 15 books, he’s working on a sequel to If You Could See What I Hear, and he’s considering movie options for other works However, Tom’s calendar is full as he focuses on the next chapter of his life.

“Feeling healthy is important, and I want to accomplish another large event … so it might be a triathlon or a race.”

He shares, “I feel more alive today than ever, but I still have so much to do because my focus now is on my legacy and giving back.” He has four areas of legacy that are critical to him and that drive him every day: his Lifelong Legacy, his Quality of Life Legacy, his Collaborative Legacy with his children and his Fitness Legacy.

Tom’s Lifelong Legacy is to advance and promote the Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles. This is Tom’s lasting impact on generations of children who are blind or visually impaired from birth. In May of each year, The Tom Sullivan Blind Children’s Center Celebrity Golf Classic unites celebrities, sports stars and benefactors in a tournament held at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades.

His second area of focus is on Patty and their marriage, and he defines this as his Quality of Life Legacy. “I wasn’t selfish, but I was so busy being me and pursuing so many opportunities for so long while Patty was home raising our children, that now I want to spend quality time with her,” he says.

They are reconnecting over the simple pleasures in life such as lingering over a morning coffee or a quiet glass of wine in the evenings. Patty has a hectic career as a real estate agent with Vista Sotheby’s International Realty in Palos Verdes, but after 48 years together, she and Tom share a beautifully balanced life.

Tom’s third area of focus is on his children and reconnecting with them as adults in shared interests and ambitions. He terms this his Collaborative Legacy. His son, Tom, Jr., owns Fireboard—a custom surfboard company. However, like his namesake, Tom is a very talented musician and producer.

Having attended the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, he also worked as a bass player and sound engineer for a seasoned roster of major composers. Today Tom and son are collaborating on an album together.

Tom’s daughter, Blythe, lives in Vail, Colorado, where she works for Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. Previously Blythe worked for the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, where she was a guide for blind skiers. Whether guiding a student for the first time or skiing steep, icy, black slopes with her father, Blythe’s deft touch gives confidence and freedom to blind skiers.

 

“This is my most interdependent experience with Blythe because skiing with her—but without speaking and just knowing she’s there to guide me—is the closest I’ll ever be able to see,” says Tom.

Tom’s fourth area of focus is his Fitness Legacy. As a high school student, Tom was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. That’s a tremendous accomplishment for any wrestler, but it’s an astounding feat for a Boston-bred blind wrestler.

Tom is also a spectacular golfer who missed winning the 2017 Blind National Golf Championship in Tampa by one stroke. Locally, he’s a frequent golfer on the Palos Verdes Golf Club course, where Patty is his guide.

“Feeling healthy is important, and I want to accomplish another large event … so it might be a triathlon or a race,” says Tom.

Currently he spends four days each week lifting weights and alternate days biking or running with a group of friends in Palos Verdes. If a tandem bike is not convenient on a certain day, Tom rides a stationary bike. Running with a group of friends provides not only training partners and comradery, but they’re also guides to help him navigate trails and routes.

Tom Sullivan cannot see his resume, but it is a magnum opus filled with adventures, events and relationships that have been the genesis of his stories shared in verses, songs, episodes and chapters. Although Tom has very defined goals for his four areas of legacy, the simple truth is that Tom Sullivan, the man, is indeed a living legacy.

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