Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Sue Thomas

Imagine a little girl growing up in Boardman, Ohio who suddenly loses her hearing at eighteen months. All of her hearing. What kind of life do you think she could have hoped for? This was the story of Sue Thomas, which you can listen to her tell in the YouTube video above. At the time, her parents were encouraged to place her in an institution. Her parents refused that advice and worked with the Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center (which closed in 2017), where she learned to read lips and speak.

This amazing young child was the youngest Ohio State Champion free-style skater at age seven. She had a coach who skated with her in practice, beating time to the music until she learned her routine. Then he motioned her when the music started and performed–a championship performance! She also learned to play piano, feeling the vibrations, studying classical piano.

School was hard but she hung in there. She was considered a “slow learner” until a typing teacher recognized her potential. She attended Springfield College in Massachusetts with a double major in political science and international affairs. She subsequently went on to do graduate work in counseling at Case Western Reserve University and Columbia Bible College and Seminary.

She looked for months for work until the FBI came calling. She started out as a fingerprint examiner and then worked in undercover surveillance. She said, “I followed the bad guys around and I read their lips and I told the good guys what the bad guys were saying.” She was involved in solving a number of high profile crimes.

In 1990, She wrote an account of her life, Silent Night, that later served as the basis of a TV series inspired by her life Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye, that ran for 56 episodes from 2002-2005 on the Pax Network, one of two most highly rated programs. Production ended because the Pax Network decided to discontinue original programming. She was asked who she would like to play her, and she asked for a tall blonde, and Deanne Bray was chosen. The real Sue had cameo appearances in two episodes.

As is evident in the video, Sue is a very religious woman with a strong faith in God. Despite being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2001 and cancer in 2020 (now in remission), her website says that at 71 she continues to travel around the US speaking about her faith, with her service dog Sir “Rodney” the Great and her full time associate. Her website states, “Her audiences range from 1 to 45,000  and her keynotes are geared towards education, civic, corporate, sports, and non-profits along with medical in the areas of deafness, multiple schlerosis and diabetes.” In recent days, her ministry has been working to provide supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

When not traveling, she lives in a small log cabin in Vermont. She has written a sequel to her 1990 biography, Staying in the Race, and is working on a third book.

I’m struck that Sue’s faith certainly has animated her life but also that her parents, speech and hearing therapists, skating coaches, piano teachers and that typing teacher played a large role in her life from her earliest days growing up in the Youngstown area. Sue would no doubt attribute all this to God’s plan and goodness. I won’t argue with that. Listening to her, though, I also hear a woman with the grit and resilience of someone who grew up in the Mahoning Valley.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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