THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Sue Thomas is a former FBI agent. She is deaf, travels with a hearing-ear dog and reads lips. She comes across as an intelligent woman with a jovial mood, a hearty belly laugh and with lots more on her mind than promoting a TV series.
Even when the series is named for her, “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye,” a new action drama premiering Sunday, Oct. 13, on the PAX network.
The two-hour opener airs at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific time and was developed by Dave and Gary Johnson, who also created the PAX network’s top-rated “Doc” starring Billy Ray Cyrus. (Doc premiers an all-new episode that same night, written by the show’s star.)
Thomas is happy about the series, of course. The reason: It’s one more outlet where people can be reminded that there is a healing force available to complete their lives. Although the show does not preach, it does present a working girl in an exotic job who lives a Christian lifestyle.
Spending time with Thomas reflects what the late Corrie ten Boom once declared: “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”
When she was 18 months old, Thomas was watching television with her family when she suddenly could not hear. “No specialist in this country can tell me how or why I lost my hearing or, for that matter, how to restore it,” Thomas said.
The problem came to a head when, even as a young child, she tried to solve her problem by turning up the volume full-blast. Her mother promptly turned it back down. Upon repeating her action, Thomas was scolded. But her parents soon realized something was drastically wrong and rushed her to their family doctor in Youngstown, Ohio.
Referrals to hearing specialists followed. Despite various operations and experimental treatments in subsequent years, nothing could restore her hearing. So her parents made her a lifetime vow to do whatever they could — absolutely everything in their power and within their means — to enable her to become as much a part of the hearing world as possible.
Her parents held true to that promise, giving their youngest of four children all the physical and mental support they could. Sue’s treatments included expensive therapy at Youngstown’s Hearing and Speech Center, where she learned to speak by imitating the vibrations she felt when she placed her hands on the therapist’s throat and by looking in the mirror to shape her mouth the way the therapist was doing hers.
Later came endless hours with voice and drama coaches. After hours of hard work, Thomas began to learn how to read lips and speak naturally. But due to the somewhat nasal sound of her speech, common in a people unable to hear their own voices, her fellow elementary school classmates taunted and ridiculed her.
But her parents bestowed a great gift that surpassed the cruelness of other children. They gave a supportive love which fueled their daughter’s confidence. “My mother had a painting of Jesus hanging in my bedroom,” Thomas recounted. “She explained that with God’s help, there was absolutely nothing in my life I couldn’t do.”
Thomas persevered, going on to take music lessons, ice skating and later completing graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She then went to work at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. At first, she helped start a program to train deaf people to classify fingerprints. However, with her superb ability to read lips, she was approached by agents who had videotaped an investigation, only to find the camera’s sound mechanism had failed. “They asked if I could read the people’s lips and tell what was being said.”
Her success in that high-profile case led to work in undercover surveillance. “It was no problem for me to stand across the room in, say, an airport where a deal was going down and take verbatim notes on what the suspects were saying.”
But despite her success with the FBI, Thomas was unsatisfied. Looking to other horizons, she entered the Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions in Columbia, S.C., where she found nurture for her life’s desire to proclaim the love and forgiveness of God through his son, Christ Jesus.
“The idea for a series has been in the works for 12 years,” Thomas said. “When my autobiography was published by Tyndale 12 years ago, Columbia bought the option to turn it into a screenplay. They had that for one year. And they couldn’t decide what direction they wanted to take it. Should it be totally about the FBI? Others thought it was too inspirational, too spiritual. So after a year, they dropped it. But the senior vice president of Columbia TV was behind it. He told me, ‘You have a story and it’s going to be told. It may take 10 or 15 years, but it’s going to be told.’
“Two or three years later, another production company picked up the option. They had it for three years. But they couldn’t find the major financing. But during that time, they hired the Johnsons to write the screenplay. So six or seven years passed. They were doing ‘Doc’ and PAX wanted another series. But ‘Doc’ was a fulltime job. They really didn’t want to do anything else. But one day I e-mailed Dave Johnson and told him I was still alive and I have not stopped praying about the project and their involvement. Unbeknownst to me, that was the very day they had to let PAX know if they would be doing my series. Dave then went to his brother, Gary, and they decided to do the series. They went to PAX and said there is only one series they would want to do — and that’s about this deaf woman and a dog working for the FBI.”
Deanne Bray, a severely deaf actress, plays Thomas with a strength and vulnerability that holds the two professional and personal facets of her life together.
“The producers asked if I thought the actress playing me should also be deaf,” said Thomas, who is serving as a consultant for the series. “I felt it had to be. But I said if we could not find that deaf actress, I didn’t want the quality to be compromised. So when I came to California and saw Deanne’s audition tape, I was looking for that something special. I found it in her eyes. In them I saw the loneliness, the separation. She was vulnerable, yet there was an inner strength. Watching the tape, tears started to come down my eyes. I turned to Dave Johnson. ‘Don’t look any further. You have your actress.’ I knew right away.
“Deanne and I have gotten to know each other very well. She’s become my little sister. And when I introduce her to people, I say, ‘I would like you to meet the new and improved Sue Thomas.'” Thomas then adds with a self-effacing laugh, “You have to admit, she makes me look awful good.”
Bray said she hopes Thomas’ story “will not only entertain — I’m sure it will do that — but that it can also be a bridge between different worlds, that it can help everyone understand that we are all more alike than we are different.”
“We believe this is a precedent-setting series,” producer Dave Johnson said. “Never before has there been a television show about the real-life experiences and career of a deaf person — who is also portrayed by a deaf actor. When Deanne came in and auditioned against numerous other actresses — both hearing and deaf — we knew right away what an incredibly gifted woman she was and that she perfectly embodied the persona of Sue Thomas.”
“Each week, we’ll present a fast-paced, inside look into high-profile F.B.I. cases based on actual recent and current events,” added Gary Johnson, co-creator along with brother Dave. “Corporate scandal, diplomatic immunity, abuses of power and terrorist activity are just some other areas we’ll explore. But the show is about more than that. It’s about the perseverance and humor of Sue Thomas. It’s a series that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but will also make you laugh and cry.”
“Finally, audiences will be able to gain a deeper understanding and respect for the individuals who walk the path of silence,” said Thomas, who is now a motivational speaker and author.
With a busy speaking schedule and a new TV series, it would seem Thomas has it made. Unfortunately, however, a new trial looms: Eighteen months ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. What’s more, the MS has affected not only her walking, but her eyesight.
She communicates with her eyes. Without them, she is unable to read lips.
“I wish that I didn’t have MS. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But God has given me a grace I have never known. I understand his sovereign grace in a much deeper level. Each day he equips me to get through that day.
“I know Joni Eareckson Tada. Even though I have a disability of my own, I couldn’t comprehend what Joni has gone through. To be an able-bodied person and, in a split second, losing it. Now I understand how in a split second your life can be so terribly changed. With this journey, God is showing me the many paths that people are on. And now I can be more understanding.
“When young people ask me if it hurt to be laughed at when I was little, I tell them yeah. But now I know how it feels to be laughed at. Now I know how others feel who are different and unaccepted because they are different.”
Eight years ago, Thomas moved back to Ohio to be with her parents during their golden years. “My parents did everything for me. I’m their only daughter. I have three brothers and I’m the only one not married. So it was time to go back. I have to give back, because so much was given to me. And I welcomed that opportunity.
“On May 24 of that year, the three of us were going to move into a condominium. But on April 3, we lost my father. So for the past five years, it’s just been my mom and myself. I had come home to help my parents, but when I discovered the MS, again my mom was there to help me through each one of those terrifying early days.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SUE THOMAS and SUE THOMAS AND HER HEARING EAR DOG GRACE.