Friday, February 1, 2013

and he happens to be...

Imagine a man who has had a singing career, highlighted by singing the National Anthem before Super Bowl XX in 1976, an acting career that has spanned forty years, appearing on TV shows ranging from M*A*S*H to Touched by an Angel, made some 60 appearances as a guest on The Tonight Show, and spent five years working as a special correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America. Would you listen to what a man like that has to say about living a passionate life?

Imagine a man who graduated from Harvard, has written several books including a memoir that was made into a feature film (for which he also composed much of the music), and has spoken about his life to hundreds of thousands of people.  Would you listen to what a man like that has to say about living with purpose?

Imagine a man who has met and learned from Hellen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali.  Who has run the NYC Marathon, golfed Augusta, and been enshrined into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.  Would you listen to what a man like that has to say about meeting challenges?

Alright, admit it; you have no idea who I’m talking about, do you?

That’s okay.  Truthfully, I didn’t know any of this stuff either before I picked up a copy of his book.

Imagine that the man who has done all these things is blind, and has been almost since birth.  Would you be interested in hearing what such a man has to say about living a fulfilling life?  

Me too.

The man who happens to be blind is Tom Sullivan.  If you are a child of the 70’s, or even the 80’s, you undoubtedly have seen him.  He was ubiquitous on television during much of that time.  There he is.
Told you you'd recognize him.
Here's what he looks like these days:

In addition to appearing on many popular series in those decades, he was also a very frequent visitor on the talk show circuit:  Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and of course, the king, Johnny Carson.  He did them all.  Even co-hosted with Douglas for a few weeks.

But I remember him particularly from one of his sitcom guest-star roles.  He played a blind businessman on an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati.  The character, and Mr. Sullivan, have been lodged firmly in my brain ever since. 

Truth is, it was for this reason, and pretty much only this reason, that I bought Seeing Lessons when I saw it standing on the shelf of our local Bookmans. 

Scary, isn’t it, that this is the way I tend to make decisions?

In the episode of WKRP called “To Err is Human,” Tom Sullivan plays Hester Sherman, a successful local businessman who happens to be blind.  This was, in itself, groundbreaking in a sense, at least it was for me.  People of my generation or older can probably still faintly recall how the disabled were typically portrayed on TV back in the 70’s; that is, on the rare occasions they were portrayed at all.   They were almost always victims needing someone to help them, protect them, or rescue them.  Even as a kid, it didn’t take long to figure out that having a disabled person who needed rescuing in the plot was a really easy way to generate empathy in the audience, not to mention a rooting interest in the good guy doing the rescuing.  That’s some easy lovin’, so to speak.

But Hester Sherman needs no rescuing.  In fact, the way Tom Sullivan portrayed the character, the idea seems positively ludicrous.  No, in this episode, it is hapless - and fully sighted - Herb Tarlek who needs to be saved from Hester Sherman.  Even the irresistibly beautiful Jennifer Marlowe encounters initial disappointment as she seeks to rescue Herb, discovering to her shock that her cornucopia of exterior attributes are pretty much lost on Sherman.  Fortunately, though, Jennifer’s beauty is located as much below the skin as in it, and it is Sherman’s recognition of that fact which earns Herb yet another undeserved reprieve from the unemployment office. 

Hester Sherman is no victim, nor is he a bitter man, seeking vengeance against a world that takes for granted the very precious thing he lacks.  Sherman simply treats his disability in a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense way, and in doing so, he gave me a new and better way of thinking about the people who have happen to have one. 

And here we get to the real reason that episode had such a lasting impact on me.  I beg your pardon in advance; this is going to require me to be blunt for a moment.

There’s something in me that loves to see stereotypes being f*cked with.  I’m not really sure what it is exactly or why; I just know that I take great delight in seeing them turned inside out, or upside down, or blown to smithereens.  And in his role as Hester Sherman, Tom Sullivan was f*cking with the stereotypes associated with being blind and disabled. 

I love him for that. 

So that, more than anything, explains why I picked up his book when I saw it, and then moved everything on my extensive reading stack to the side while I read it.  I wanted to know more about the man with the courage to f*ck with stereotypes, and the drive to show us something different.  That’s when I learned all the other stuff about Mr. Sullivan, and my respect for the man who happens to be blind grew far deeper. 

I’d like to share a few of his observations and comments, especially some of those that jumped out at me.  Here they are, in no particular order:

“Self worth comes about from having a dream, taking a risk, and doing the work.”

“Let yourself become passionate about the world around you.”

“In my teens and early twenties, I raged against the system, sometimes rather obnoxiously.  My intense desire to be completely independent (you don’t have to be disabled to feel this way – K.T.) made me never accept help from people when I was traveling on my own…

How much easier would it have been for me to take someone’s arm and walk across the street rather than step out in the middle of traffic and hear the screech of brakes when I misread the pattern of stoplights?  How often did I knock down displays in crowded department stores when I was trying to shop on my own?  Sometimes the colors of my clothes didn’t match because I wouldn’t ask my roommates for help in sorting out my closet.”

“Work every day at valuing people – not belittling them, judging them, or pushing them away because you don’t think they’re worthwhile.”

“In moments of pain and doubt, we can summon our courage and grow to be better than we ever thought possible.”

“Eventually I had the opportunity to meet Dr. King, and I’ll never forget how quickly he honed in on his perception of who I was.  In a short time, he made me understand that the problem was not in others; it was in me.  I was putting out the bad vibe.  I was being intolerant.  I had to change.

I came to understand that most people meant well, that they were not prejudiced – they were simply misinformed.  I experienced a true catharsis of spirit.  In this breakthrough, I grew to realize that love and respect, when expressed openly, can overcome almost all negative stereotyping.”

“No winner has ever existed without giving bent to his passion, and no passion has ever taken us to our goals without connecting it to other people of like mind.”

“Our passions engage us in the experience of being alive.  They allow us to risk in order to gain reward.  They come from our core and are the songs sung by our souls.  If we deny them, we are less.  If we do not continue searching for them, we are far less than we were meant to be.  They are not always obvious, yet each of us knows when we have discovered them.  Hold your passions close to your heart, and as you embrace them, recognize that it is only in the expression of passion that life will find true meaning.”

On Muhammad Ali:
“He told me that he ministers to the world and lives the tenets of Islam with a profound commitment to peace.  I not only believe him but embrace his calling.  He is a human treasure not because of a great left jab and the ability to move in the ring with a fluidity never seen before or since in a boxer but because of who he is – a man of faith and love.”

“It is impossible to do the right thing if you are paralyzed by your fears.”

“I have seen people at their best when they are trying to help a blind person get along in the world.  Even if their efforts are patronizing or misplaced, what must be decided is:  Where are they really coming from?  If the aid they offer is from the heart, even if the approach is somewhat demeaning or awkward, learn to accept the essential goodness offered in the intention.”

“If you are fearful rather than courageous, the result is an absolute certainty:  you will fail.  The only person who pays the price when accepting fear as a dominant part of life is you.”

“Blindness has made me understand that I must trust others – whether it’s my life mate, Patty, or my companion dog, Partner; whether it’s skiing with Blythe or playing golf with Tom lining up the shots…Believing in others is as important as believing in yourself.

“Let me lighten the load when you think about challenge… Challenge is fun.  Competing is fun.  Reaching beyond your grasp is fun.  There is joy in the wondrous feeling of being completely alive when you take on the exciting experience of the challenge…Why not embrace the concept with joy and enthusiasm?”

“Faith is the abracadabra part – the magic of it all, the element of confidence that causes miracles to occur, the belief that makes hope live in our hearts and inspire our souls.”

“All winners who I’ve been privileged to be around believe that success comes from a leap of faith.  And you know what?  Taking that leap is a hell of a ride and a lot of fun.”

“Being blind has afforded me the opportunity to look behind the immediates of physical appearance and ethnicity…I have never met an ugly person unless he or she wanted to be, unless he or she demonstrated a personality that was truly ugly in its manifestation…
Cruelty for its own sake is ugly.
Arrogance is ugly.
Misplaced anger is ugly.
Ethnic cleansing is ugly.
Racial prejudice is ugly.
Socioeconomic bigotry is ugly.

There are bad people in the world, and when we see the ugliness of human intolerance, we must do everything possible to stamp it out.”

“Tear down the walls.  Throw away the fears.  Open your hearts.  Experience true love that can only be expressed by taking a risk in order to know, in order to grow.  I am no better or worse than you, but I am less than you if I am not open to the possibility of being able to say easily, openly, and without constraint, ‘I love you.’”

So, there you have it.  If you found something valuable in the selection of Mr. Sullivan’s words, I highly recommend checking out one of his books.  Here are just a few of them:

To close out this post, it just so happens that Mr. Sullivan is very good friends with Betty White (she actually helped Tom and his wife meet in 1970).  She gives a nice overview of some of Mr. Sullivan's achievements:

P.S.  Joy of joys!!!  I found the blog of someone who has uploaded the “To Err is Human” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati.  You can watch it in its entirety, and best of all, it includes the original songs used on the show!!!  That may not mean much to you, but for me it’s like I’ve tripped over (and by tripping, discovered) the holy grail!!!  God bless you, kind and loving steward of humanity!

"To Err is Human"  WKRP in Cincinnati courtesy of Something Old, Something New

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