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Deaf woman's service as a lip reader for the FBI inspires TV series

Thursday, October 10, 2002

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sue Thomas is deaf, but she "heard" about a job opening the way people often do.

A friend of hers at the Youngstown Hearing & Speech Center had a friend in Washington who had a friend at the U.S. State Department who had a friend at the FBI.

Gracie, a hearing-ear dog, plants a smooch on Sue Thomas, the inspiration for the new Pax TV series "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye." Thomas, of Columbiana, Ohio, is deaf and worked for the FBI as a lip reader in the early 1980s. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Star of series marvels at Thomas' lip-reading skills

Show's charms are hard to resist

"That's how I got word the FBI was looking for deaf people," Thomas, 52, said recently as she sat in the kitchen of her lakeside home in Columbiana, Ohio, about 15 miles south of Youngstown. "If you don't think I was panicked ... I thought, 'What did we do?'"

She laughed. For some reason, the FBI felt deaf people would be better able to concentrate on fingerprints without distractions, she said, laughing again.

However, after Thomas, then 30, moved from her native Youngstown to Washington, D.C., and began counting the lines of fingerprints eight hours a day, five days a week, she thought she'd made the biggest mistake of her life. She found the work monotonous.

A few months into the job, her supervisor approached her, telling her FBI agents wanted to see her.

"Do you watch TV?" they asked, among other things. They were having a problem working a case. They had videotaped a suspect, but the audio portion of the video wasn't working. They asked if she could read the suspect's lips. She could and did.

"Never went back to fingerprinting after that," Thomas said.

She became a special assistant to an agent at the FBI for about 3 1/2 years in the early 1980s.

"Just long enough to get a TV series out of it," she said.

"Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," the series somewhat loosely based on Thomas' life, premieres at 9 tonight on Pax TV.

"I love it," she said of the show.

The jovial, cherubic Thomas exudes a spiritual, inner calm. With her short salt-and-pepper hair and rimless eyeglasses, she seems a bit grandma-like, a little nun-like and quite comfortable in her gray golf shirt, light blue jeans and white Skechers sneakers.

Thomas has done interviews with TV Guide and "The Today Show" and was slated to appear on the Rev. Robert Schuller's "Hour of Power." She also was on a whirlwind promotional tour that included stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, where an episode was to be screened for White House staff members. At the end of this week, she'll be speaking to school children at a U.S. military base in Frankfurt, Germany.

"I'm totally overwhelmed," she says of her celebrity. "I wake up and continually pinch myself."

What started out as a tremendous personal tragedy for Thomas as a child has propelled her to accomplishments and a celebrity she might never have even imagined otherwise.

At 18 months, Thomas noticed the sound went off as she watched television with her family. She turned up the volume. Her mother turned it down. Thomas turned it back up. Her brothers turned it down. The next day, when she didn't respond to being called, her parents took her to a doctor, who discovered Thomas had suffered an instant and total loss of hearing.

Her parents enrolled her in the Youngstown Hearing & Speech Center, where she mastered speaking and lip reading. She then was enrolled in public school, where learning was difficult because children taunted her because of the way she spoke. She also missed what was going on in class whenever her teacher turned toward the chalk board and she couldn't see her lips.

Roller skating -- not ice skating, as it's depicted in the TV series -- became her escape and refuge. After a difficult time in school, she'd take to the rink and just skate as fast as she could for relaxation.

She also began to compete. Even though Thomas couldn't hear music, she could mark the beat by watching her skating coach, who would tell her when to take off and when to perform certain jumps and maneuvers. She went on to become the youngest Ohio Freestyle Skating Champion in history at age 7 and credits skating with saving her life.

"I talked awful funny," she said. "I was ridiculed in school, and it gave me the self-esteem that I needed."

Her skating trophy was bigger than any trophies the other kids had, she said. She also is a classically trained pianist and played trumpet as a child.

Thomas enrolled in Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., in 1968, getting her degree in political science and international relations in 1976.

"It took me about eight years to leave that place," she said. "I've always been into current events and always loved politics, never realizing that one day I would work for the FBI or that I'd travel the world as a motivational speaker."

She did post-graduate studies in counseling at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University in 1979. She was back in Youngstown learning sign language -- after unsuccessfully trying to find her dream job -- when she learned about the opening at the FBI.

Now, her life's the basis for a TV show. The show's creators, brothers Dave and Gary Johnson, learned of Thomas and her story when they were hired to write the screenplay for a movie about her life. The movie was never made, but the three kept in touch.

"I e-mailed them [about a year ago] to tell them I'd come down with [multiple sclerosis] and my eyesight was going, but I haven't forgotten them," she said. "'I know the intent is still there to do a movie, but what about a TV series?'"

The next day, the Johnsons went to Pax TV and pitched a TV series about "a deaf woman and a dog who work for the FBI," she said.

Thomas is slated to appear in the series at some point, though she says she doesn't want a speaking part. She also has been very involved with the production. She reviews show scripts before they are shot and, on visits to the set in Toronto, she points out when something isn't being depicted properly. She told the production team how Deanne Bray, the hearing-impaired actress playing her, should hold the leash of her hearing-ear dog in one scene and told them how the dog should be reacting in another scene.

Thomas raves about Bray, who has become like a little sister to her.

"I couldn't ask for anybody better," she said. "She makes me look real good. I have no doubt she is Emmy and even Oscar material."

Thomas and Bray have plans to spend Christmas together.

"We've bonded," Thomas said. "Our spirits have connected."

A major difference between the TV show and real life is that Thomas didn't get her hearing-ear dog, Levi, until after she'd worked at the FBI. Levi is deceased. Thomas' current hearing-ear dog is a golden retriever named Gracie, who has cancer. In the series, the TV dog they're using looks like her Gracie, but is named Levi.

"So, I have both of my dogs in the show," she says.

Thomas -- once detained with her hearing-ear dog in Hawaii because the state requires animals new to the islands to be quarantined three months -- is suing the state of Hawaii to have hearing-ear dogs exempt from that law.

She held the Canine Classic Golf Tournament as a fund-raiser for the lawsuit last month, and the case goes to trial in February. Thomas plans to be there for closing arguments, and she is optimistic she'll win because a similar lawsuit filed on behalf of Seeing Eye dogs was successful.

For now, she's just enjoying the show.

All the cases in "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" are fictional, but Thomas was called in to work on similar white-collar types of crimes, such as embezzlement and diamond smuggling.

And unlike her TV show character, the bulk of Thomas' time was spent behind a TV screen watching tapes, not out on the streets working with agents.

"Nobody knew I existed," she says.

Asked about her most memorable case during her tenure with the FBI, Thomas said there was one extremely high-profile case that stood out.

"When I turned on the film and saw what was on the tape, I just about fell out of my chair," Thomas said.

But that's all she'll say.

Also, reading lips for the FBI wasn't an eight-hour a day, five-day a week job. So, when she wasn't reviewing surveillance tapes, she gave tours.

Thomas initially left the FBI because of health problems and could have returned, but at that time she felt she needed a change.

"I wanted more than the Washington, D.C., scene," she said.

That's when she decided to enroll in what was then known as the Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions, in Columbia, S.C.

"So many times, I hated being deaf," she said. "I had to work through my deafness while in the seminary, and silence became my friend instead of my worst enemy. It is only in our silence that we learn to hear God."

Thomas also draws upon her faith as she faces the challenges of dealing with multiple sclerosis and fading eyesight.

"Do I blame God?" she says. "No. He's taking me on an entirely new journey."

Thomas plans to continue the motivational speaking she did worldwide before "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" and to promote the show. She also is working on a second book. Her first, an autobiography titled "Silent Night," was published in 1990.

Thomas simply hopes that all people -- especially youngsters with disabilities and parents struggling to deal with a child with challenges or disabilities -- can learn from her TV character by seeing all she and her parents endured.

"It's my goal that it will bring hope," she said.

L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.

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