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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Growing up with brothers Michael, Bill and Jim in the rural town of Kendall, Sue Ann’s life was “mostly uneventful.” Days were spent playing football or basketball or card games like clubs and euchre at her grandmother’s bar. The family was middle class and her mother and father worked at a locker plant (a storage building for chilled food before freezers were widespread). When I ask Sue Ann about the values her parents instilled in her she tells me that when the family needed something, they worked for it. She recalls selling watermelons to pay for new school clothes and Christmas trees to buy Christmas presents.
“It was hard work, and we worked to support the family. Work kept us going—but we did everything as a family.”
Strength in family, religious faith and a honed work ethic are what laid the foundation for young Sue Ann’s life. She held those values close into her teens and early twenties, when she answered a higher calling. Sue Ann had been attending Viterbo College (now University) in La Crosse for two years when one day she walked across the street to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and joined the convent. She stayed for six years, and earned her college degree during that time. Her gaze once again turns steady and her voice is calm when she discusses her life in the convent.
“I call it my finishing school,” she jokes. “But really, I liked that life. I had come from a much different setting. The people were wonderful, and it introduced discipline I needed in my life at that time. I had been brought up in a relatively strict Catholic home and it just reinforced my Catholic beliefs. It just helped me gain a lifelong perspective on who I was and what I would become.”
Sue Ann says she enjoyed the life of routine and order, doing the household chores and setting up daily Mass. But she eventually left because she wanted to start a family and knew that wasn’t possible if she took vows for another five years. She moved to Milwaukee for a teaching job and eventually ended up in Madison to lobby for her union. There, she was reacquainted with Tommy Thompson, a legislator from Elroy she had known growing up. Sue Ann amusingly retells how she approached Tommy about higher wages, to which he countered that he came from a poor district and didn’t think he could ask his constituents for teacher raises in Milwaukee. But, he asked her, how about dinner instead?
“You have a certain degree of affection for people from your own community,” says Tommy all these years later. “She and I graduated high school only seven miles apart, so there was an allegiance. Plus, I thought she was charming, personable and beautiful.”
“And I thought, ‘I’m not going away without anything!’” Sue Ann chuckles. “So the following Saturday night we went out to dinner.” They wed in 1968 in a small ceremony in Arcadia, settled in Elroy, and began their life together. Tommy commuted to Madison while Sue Ann taught elementary school and raised Kelli, now 40, Tommi, 39, and Jason, 35 (an attorney with Michael Best & Friedrich). During most of Tommy’s tenure as governor Sue Ann taught full-time in Kendall.
When I ask about the political force that is Tommy Thompson—legislator for twenty years, three-term governor, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and 2008 presidential candidate—Sue Ann is decidedly casual. “Well, before I married him I had no interest in politics. I always thought, ‘That’s something somebody else does and they’ll take care of it for me.’ So after Tom and I married he promised me he’d only run for one more term and that would be it. So I thought, ‘Well, one more term, that’s not so bad.’”
Little did she know “one more term” would turn into a lifelong career, but through it all Sue Ann has remained accepting of her husband’s choices.
“It was one of those things. You keep living, I guess, and you don’t make a fuss. You do what you have to do. It’s really never been an issue and he’s always been good in allowing me to do what I wanted.”
Indeed, Tommy, who is now a partner at Akin Gump, a Washington, D.C., law firm, and president of the La Crosse-based Logistics Health Incorporated, acknowledges that politics was never his wife’s thing.
“Sue Ann didn’t like politics in the beginning, but she learned to be active not in the partisan sense but in the serving sense,” he says. “She supports me, but doesn’t like partisan politics like I do. She has built a career in Wisconsin and she’s probably as well known as I am, or maybe even more so. I’m more in the limelight … but if you balance it out, her calling is much more meritorious than mine. Her way is a different way of serving.”
When I mention recent rumors of a very partisan political race—Tommy Thompson vs. Russ Feingold in the upcoming U.S. Senate election—Sue Ann is candid.
“I try to stay out of it. Does it bother me when people ask questions? No. I can’t tell them things I don’t know. I always encourage people to do things but with Tom, it’s always no. I always discourage it; you can’t go back, you need to look ahead,” she shrugs, smiling. “My philosophy is quit while you’re ahead.”
This kind of honesty is an endearing characteristic friends, family and colleagues all point to in describing her personality. “What you see is what you get,” is what I hear more than once. Kelli and Tommi refer to her as “Sue Ann, unfiltered.”
“The interest, dedication and sincerity Sue Ann has trickles down to the staff and that impresses me. Sue Ann’s personality is so open she can just talk to anybody,” says scheduler Janeen Meehan. “I’ve been to conferences with her in Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C., as well as some of the rural areas in Wisconsin. She’s the same person, no matter what their economic level or culture.”
With the WWHF inextricably linked to Sue Ann Thompson’s name, I ask how else she’d like to be remembered. She pauses, quite uncharacteristically. This time an answer’s not quite at the ready.
“It’s a very short life. [I hope people say] that I helped them if they asked for help; that I was helpful in this life to others. You have so many experiences, and you move on, and there’s always another job. And if you accept your challenges, you can make what you want to out of them. You’re born who you are; you do with what you’ve got and people have to accept that. I find that being myself is all I’ve got.”
Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.