I’m at aloss for finding the right superlative to describe last night.
It seems like “great,” “awesome,” or even “fantastic” just seem like overused modifiers in today’s digital world where everybody’s favorite web-connected device is their means of sharing thoughts with the world, and people toss those words about like so many handfuls of Tic Tacs. Those words also don’t begin to grasp the powerful, slap you in the face directness of what Tom Sullivan had to say during his presentation of Adventures in Darkness to the gathered group at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Center.
If you are unfamiliar with Tom Sullivan, click the link above and learn who he is.
I can tell you he is an author, actor, producer, entertainer, Olympic athlete, Harvard graduate, Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee, recipient of the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Memorial Award, and so many other accomplishments and honors. I can also tell you he is a man who happens to be blind. That last bit of information is just the punctuation mark on the previous listing of awards and acknowledgements.
The presentation was sponsored by the UH School of Optometry and the women of the Delta Gamma sorority, so Sullivan targeted his comments to future vision specialists and the sorority of his wife. However, he always made sure to include others who might be in the audience, but he tried to ensure that his words had the most impact for the future vision professionals.
First, let me toss out the only statistic I recall Sullivan mentioning. I want to put it here, because its significant. Granted, I don't know the source of his information, but am trusting it to be accurate.
43% The divorce rate among married couples in the United States
87% The divorce rate of married couples in the United States when they are parents of a blind child
Whoa! I told you it was significant.
Sullivan built his presentation around a few scenes from his most recent book, Adventures in Darkness: Memoirs of an 11 year old blind boy. If you were smart like me, and bought the commercial audio version of this book on CD, you already have an idea what this presentation was about, because Sullivan read the book on that version. And, then you also know how he did the voices of his dad, “Porky,” as well as Helen Keller, who he met at the Perkins School for the Blind, and his childhood tormentor, Eddie Mullins, when he taunted the fenced-in 11 year old by calling him “Blindy, Blindy.” He brought these same voices with him last night to give a lively emphasis to his presentation.
In last night’s audio smorgasbord, not only did the audience get to feel the emotional ride of Sullivan’s lifetime, it was also augmented by additional audio and video. The introduction from the Dean of the School of Optometry was followed by a video of Sullivan engaging in some of his favorite past times including him playing golf. Sullivan took the stage during that point and began playing the baby grand piano, serenading the audience with one of his inspirational original tunes. As he finished that song, he delved into his first story about the Perkins school. He played a few more songs through the presentation, scattering them about as he spoke.
His first story was about the last of eleven times he was kicked out of the Perkins school. It involved an escapade when he and his two best friends climbed out of their rooms, shimmying down a rope made of tied bedsheets, to go make off with one of the boats the school had. They made good on their escape, managing to go boating for more than seven hours until they were in Boston Harbor. Unbeknownst to those three lads, this was the busiest shipping port on the East Coast at that time. He gave a very gripping account of how they were nearly capsized by a passing freighter and their final safe boarding by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Through it all, Sullivan instilled a message of courage and daring, with an added soundtrack of sound effects to accompany his narrative. I personally loved it when he described how he played baseball by himself, and he added in the audio of a big league ballpark. Later, as he told the story about the boxing match his dad arranged between he and Eddie Mullins, the audio accompaniment had the sounds of punches hitting as he told the story. These were also emphasized by a bright light flashing in perfect time with each loud and distinctive punch.
His words drove home some basic messages. There were two that I took away. Don’t build fences to keep blind people safe, a point of discussion we just had at work earlier that day. Sullivan highlighted this when telling about his next-door neighbor inviting him to his yard with three simple words, “Want to play?” Also, dream big and don’t place false limitations on yourself. That last thought is a personal credo of mine, so I did a personal, internal “Whoop” when that was really hammered home.
I first heard of Tom Sullivan in the 1980s when I watched the movie If You Could See What I Hear, based on his autobiography of the same name. Little did I know at that time that I’d later share that same punctuation mark of being a man who happened to be blind in identifying my life.
I loved the movie, and there were a few memorable moments I’ll never forget. One is the scene mostpeople recall when you mention Sullivan. It’s the scene where, although he’s blind, he’s driving a car with some drunken friends in it, and he tells the police officer who pulls him over, that he had to drive, because “I was the only one who was sober.”
The other memborable scene in the film was given a brief showing during last night’s presentation. It is near the end of the film where Sullivan is home alone, watching the children. When he gets distracted by a phone call from Johnny Carson, who is calling to invite Sullivan to appear on The Tonight Show, and the girl slips out unnoticed, then falls in the pool. While Sullivan told this story to us, the screen onstage behind him showed the actor Mark Singer diving into the pool and searching for his daughter. He drove the point home to the audience about how scary and futile it felt searching for her, and the importance of listening for the faintest of sounds.
As last night’s presentation drew to a close, there were flashes of that same daughter on the video screen, now grown and skiing with Sullivan. Of course, the man skis! What did you think; blind people don’t ski?
In conclusion, let me share my heartfelt recommendation to see Tom Sullivan if you ever get the chance. If you see he’s speaking somewhere near you, it will be worth your trip to go see him. Also, if you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining speaker with a message, there is information for arranging bookings on his web page linked above.