For Tom Sullivan—author, singer and motivational speaker who has been blind from birth—the idea he could be accepted, even excel, in a sighted world came down to three important words.
The Rancho Palos Verdes resident said it started with a childhood need for a playmate.
"Two little boys moved into a house next door," said Sullivan, who grew up in the Boston area. "My father had built a big fence around our yard, and I heard the new kids playing baseball. I remember climbing the fence and getting to the top and just literally leaping into space.”
After crashing to the ground, the kids raced to his side and Sullivan introduced himself and told them he was blind.
"Then he said the three most important words other than I love you that I’ve ever heard," said Sullivan. "This little boy looked at me with the innocence of a child and said ‘Wanna play?’"
Billy Hannon has been Sullivan's best friend for 60 years and the prolific author said the friendship changed his life.
"He was the reason that I began to think I could enter the sighted world and be part of it because I had a leg up. I had another little boy who said yeah, we can be pals.”
Sullivan was born in Boston in 1947. Because he was born prematurely, he spent time in an incubator, where, he said, he received too much oxygen, which destroyed his vision.
“If I’d been sighted,” he said, “the chances are pretty good that I would never have left Boston.”
Because he couldn’t see, Sullivan had to figure out early on his tools and talents.
For the next twenty years, Sullivan struggled to find his place in the world. In his mind, he had no choice; he had to excel at everything did, no matter what it was—athlete, student, and singer, he had to be the best.
Sullivan spent his college summer vacations playing the piano and singing at a club in Cape Cod that Betty White and Allen Ludden frequented.
It was White who introduced him to his wife.
“Betty told me there’s a beautiful girl who sits here every night, and if you could see the way her eyes look at you, you wouldn’t date anyone else. She dragged me across the room and introduced me to Patty—we’ve been married fifty-one years.”
White and Ludden were instrumental in Sullivan’s lives. Ludden brought them to California and introduced Sullivan to his contacts in Hollywood.
Sullivan’s career exploded in 1973. He became a headliner in Vegas, had record contracts, and was doing concerts and corporate lectures all over the world. In 1975, he wrote his autobiography, “If You Could See What I Hear,” which later became a major motion picture.
At the same time, Sullivan and his wife, joined Vistas for Blind Children, a philanthropic organization, and raised millions of dollars for the Blind Children’s Center of Los Angeles.
“During those years, it was about my work, my career, and my family,” Sullivan explained, but he was beginning to look at things differently. As a scriptwriter for the popular television shows, Highway to Heaven, Fame, and Mork and Mindy, his motivation changed from “selling himself” to selling an idea, a concept.
Sullivan’s book, “Seeing Lessons: 14 Life Lessons,” based on his experiences and the lessons he’d learned, was the result of his new awareness.
“I wanted to offer people something important,” he said. Although he’s written more than fifteen books, the author is especially fond of the one he’s just finished, “Vision Statement,” which is about looking at life from the inside out rather than the outside in.
His interest in books accelerated when he was a grammar school student at the world-renowned Perkins School for the Blind.
“From the beginning of my life, books and libraries have always been important,” Sullivan said, “and because I was blind and couldn’t watch television, books and characters became my central thing in life. I was an obsessive reader, and Perkins had the greatest Library for the blind in the world. The Library was an important way that I became independent.”
On July 24, Sullivan will be a moderator for the Peninsula Friends of the Library’s fundraiser featuring Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue discussing their new book, “What Makes A Marriage Last.”
Sullivan has a history with the Thomas family.
He was the opening act for Danny Thomas, Marlo’s father, in Las Vegas and theaters all over the world.
Thomas got Sullivan involved in the early stages of St. Jude’s Hospital, and for years, he performed on the telethons for St. Jude’s. Sullivan worked for Marlo’s brother, Tony Thomas, and his partner, Paul Witt, on some of their television series.
Sullivan didn’t know Marlo well, but was a fan of the television show "That Girl."
Although Donahue was unaware, his style greatly influenced Sullivan.
The Phil Donahue Show was a different kind of talk show, Donahue’s goal was to let his audience communicate.
“Phil had the amazing skill of making you feel like he was genuinely interested in your opinion,” said Sullivan. And when Sullivan was working on the "Good Morning America Show," he said he incorporated a lot of Donahue’s style.
"So, I have a history and an appreciation of Marlo and Phil, and I love our Peninsula Library,” he explained. “It’s important for me to support the work our library does.”
Sullivan enjoys philanthropy.
“I found out how much fun it is to be engaged in a selfless project of giving back than it is to engage in a selfish process of getting it,” Sullivan said. “Because the more you give, the more you get.”
If You Go:
Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue discuss their book "What Makes a Marriage Last"
July 24 at 5 p.m.
Register at pvldfriends.org