Sue Ann, Unfiltered

The female head of the prominent and successful Thompson family works hard and takes life in stride, lesson's she's learned from rural roots, motherhood, breast cancer survival and the fight for health Wisconsin women

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We look like a bunch of criminals in a lineup with our suits on, don’t we,” jokes Sue Ann Thompson, gesturing to a silver-framed photograph she’s brought out to show me. The mug shots in question are of Sue Ann flanked by former First Lady of America Laura Bush and the Vice President’s wife Lynn Cheney … hardly the hardened-criminal types that come to my mind.

I ask her about another photo on her desk—a nice shot of Sue Ann and middle daughter Tommi with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Oh, that was at a function a few years ago,” she shrugs with hardly a second thought.

Most of us know who Sue Ann is—former First Lady (husband Tommy was governor for fourteen years) who hails from rural Kendall, Wisconsin; dedicated mother of three and grandmother of seven; devoted public school teacher; founder of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation and member of many boards of directors (like Very Special Arts Wisconsin) at one time or another. If you look online, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find any substantial details about her life, other than a few perfunctory paragraphs on where she grew up, how she met Tommy (more on that later), her bout with breast cancer and her work with the foundation.

Few know the “inside story” on Sue Ann—which, ironically, isn’t an inside story at all: As Sue Ann frequently reminds me (and is echoed by friends and her two daughters), “What you see is what you get.”

***

Sue Ann’s office in the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation building on Todd Drive isn’t what you’d associate with a woman who on and off lived in the ornate Revival-style Governor’s Mansion from 1987–2001, donned a sparkling silver sequined cocktail dress to Tommy’s first inauguration, has socialized with former presidents and countless who’s whos, and has joked around with Mikhail Gorbachev (or as she calls him, “Gorby”) at a White House dinner.

WWHF’s offices are housed in an unused WPS building donated by the insurance company to operate rent-free. The mint-green walls and hunter-green carpeting are certainly corporate-looking enough but the décor belies the comfortable feeling the place holds. At the end of a long, nondescript hallway is Sue Ann’s sunny office, where she sits with her scheduler Janeen Meehan and miniature Pomeranian Emmy in tow every day. If that sounds too quaint, Sue Ann shakes up your assumptions right away.

“They call me the shameless beggar here,” she asserts, nodding her strawberry-blond crop. “When you see a need, it’s much easier to ask for money for the needs of other people than, for example, campaigning. I was never good at asking for money for campaigns—I didn’t do that well. In fact, I probably didn’t do it at all! [Tommy] left me out of that part, fortunately.”

An expressive woman who gestures freely and leans forward in earnest throughout our conversations, Sue Ann has a steady gaze. When she holds it you can tell she’s passionate about a topic. For instance, when she speaks of how vital women’s health education is in her life, it’s practically like she’s talking about a family member. Which really, she is: With a mother (who died in 1980), two daughters and five granddaughters, the foundation is as much personal crusade as public service that will no doubt become a large part of her legacy here in the state. Sue Ann, her mother Fern and daughter Tommi also have all battled breast cancer.

***

Sue Ann Mashak was nine when she found out her mother was very ill, but never knew what was wrong.

“It was one of those things you didn’t ask about, Mother’s breast cancer. I don’t know if it was embarrassment, guilt or what,” she says, shrugging and folding her hands on her desk, her voice a bit softer. “When I would ask, I was made to feel bad about it, like I did something wrong. My father would say, ‘Oh, Sue Ann, we don’t talk about that.’”

Which is exactly why she chose to confront her own breast cancer in 1994 head-on in the media. Diagnosed at age fifty-three during a routine mammogram, Thompson admits she never really thought about the disease despite her family history. The genetic factor simply wasn’t discussed much at that time.

“After the whole thing with breast cancer, there was really no hiding,” she says. “I was First Lady at the time and people are interested in what you’re doing. So they knew almost immediately that I had it ... Shortly after I came out of surgery there were cameras there.”

Tommi says there was a dynamic shift after her mother’s diagnosis—her father Tommy was now the anchor, there to hold the busy and prominent but close-knit Thompsons together.

“It really became day-to-day. I think it was shocking for our family,” remembers Tommi, who now works closely with her mother at WWHF. “It was a strange time because it was the first time my mom seemed to need other people.”

“I hate to say it, but it brought us closer,” says oldest daughter Kelli, now Deputy State Public Defender. “It was very difficult, but she’s a strong person. Had she fallen apart, we would’ve fallen apart. But with Mom it was always, ‘We’re going to beat this, and here’s what we have to do to get through this.’”

With a lumpectomy and radiation treatments behind her, Sue Ann had been in remission for ten years when the family was dealt another blow in 2004: Tommi, then thirty-three, was diagnosed with the same illness. For the family, but especially for Tommi, the news came as a shock because her mother hadn’t faced the disease until much later in life.

“I know it seems we should’ve been prepared for this, being the third generation,” says Tommi. “But it’s interesting; I think in the back of my mind I always thought breast cancer would be in my life, but I thought it would happen in my sixties or later. The irony was that I work at this women’s health foundation—and had been talking about this, and telling my mother and grandmother’s story—and suddenly I was faced with it.”

Tommi chokes up easily when discussing the illness both she and her mother have endured, and then politely apologizes, saying she doesn’t understand why since so much time has passed.

“I really thought I had a fibroid tumor—even though I had a mass I didn’t think it was cancer. And [when my mom] walked into the room with the doctor to give me the diagnosis I could just tell … it was ironic she came to that appointment with me.” Tommi pauses and dabs a tear away. “It’s amazing certain things happen in your life, and they become crystal clear. A lot of things that weren’t important faded away. So, it provides a lot of clarity in your life.”

***

The clarity of her own breast cancer diagnosis back in 1994 left the indelible impression on Sue Ann that she needed to do something for women’s health—and she needed to do it now. Traveling around the state talking to women about their own health problems, she learned that not only was breast cancer a huge issue, but so were osteoporosis, domestic violence, other cancers, tobacco and
alcohol abuse by pregnant women, mental illness and heart disease.

“[My cancer] wasn’t something I could deny [in the media]. So I thought I might as well use it to the advantage of helping other women. During the whole process that followed I talked to women—they came to me—and I found out that there were a lot of issues that disproportionately affect women and diseases in general affect women differently. I just thought, ‘I have got to do something else.’”

During conversations with her radiation oncologist Judith Stitt, Sue Ann became convinced that women’s health education, awareness and advocacy was a broad vision that could work to influence residents and the health care community as well as policymakers at the local, state and national level. And who better to take this on than the influential and connected First Lady of Wisconsin?

Around the same time Sue Ann became the head of the National Spouses’ Program as part of her husband’s election to chair the National Governors Association. In that role she chose women’s health as the organization’s cause, and in cooperation with the other members she worked to appoint a women’s health officer in each state. In 1996 Sue Ann asked Tommy to appoint a Chicago health care attorney, Stacey Long, to that trailblazing position. The First Lady checked in with her periodically but discovered an unpleasant surprise at the end of the year: Long informed her that not only did she not have an office, she had no budget.

“Have you ever heard of an office without an office or budget?” Sue Ann says in an incredulous tone. “Well, that’s when I realized if I was really going to be serious about this that I had the bully pulpit at the time. I had the insight into government which kind of propelled me into starting the foundation rather than just trying to work with government to get the job done.”

So Stitt and Sue Ann tapped a group of doctors and other health-care experts to develop the concept for a statewide non-profit. One of the first to enlist was the articulate and widely respected Molly Carnes, an internist and director of the UW–Madison Center for Women’s Health Research.

“I remember some of those early board meetings,” says Carnes. “There were some people who didn’t quite get [Sue Ann’s] vision and would ask, ‘Why do we need this?’ I remember at one meeting Sue Ann said, ‘You know, women get together for Tupperware parties. Why don’t we use that model? That could be successful.’ I remember some of the men (some of whom were eventually ‘relieved’ of their duties) shook their heads, and the women were leaning in around the table saying, ‘Brilliant idea.’”

In the meantime Sue Ann traveled with Tommy to Washington, D.C., to conduct her own research at the National Institutes of Health. She vigorously agrees with Carnes’ assessment of those early meetings because she had seen the knowledge gap firsthand: There was a critical lack of research on women’s health and how disease affects them. “That’s when I decided I needed to get more information to women on these diseases they were telling me about.”

In launching the foundation Sue Ann found a whole new set challenges. First there were those early naysayers, then came funding issues, not to mention juggling other family and First Lady obligations along with her full-time teaching duties. During one of those
initial meetings Sue Ann coined the line—now WWHF’s tagline—“It all begins with a healthy woman.” Tommi and Sue Ann both recount how Stitt responded, “No, Sue Ann, it all begins with a wealthy woman,” and handed over a sizable check (Sue Ann won’t say how much) to start the foundation. They held on to the check for three months until they eventually got a call from Stitt’s accountant wondering when they were going to cash it.

“I told her we are not returning that check!” says an emphatic Sue Ann, eyebrows raised. Now, thirteen years later, the foundation has grown to serve all seventy-two counties in Wisconsin with an annual budget of $1.5 million. Every other year, WWHF also awards the $50,000 Dr. Judith Stitt Woman Faculty Scholar Award to a female junior faculty member at a higher educational institution in the state to further her education and research. Stitt died in 1999 but not before seeing the WWHF come into fruition in 1997.

It’s telling that Sue Ann chose women’s health generally and not breast cancer specifically when she was head of the National Spouses’ Program or as the vision for the WWHF. She says it was because so many other agencies and nonprofits were focused on that illness at the time. Those who know her say it just reinforces her desire to serve others—it’s not something she consciously thinks about, she just does.

“At the time so many women were telling me stories about heart problems, young women who died from heart attacks, and women not getting tests or screenings unless they insisted—it’s still a huge issue,” she says. “If we can take our programs out into small as well as large communities, we can get the word out in education. And that’s something I got from being a teacher. Education leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads you to a better life, there’s no question about it. It empowers you to make good choices.”

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