When Sue Willmington first interpreted for the deaf on the Old Time Gospel Hour in 1973, there was no closed captioning.
“It was the first, and only at that time, nationwide program sign-interpreted for the deaf,” Willmington said.
In those 17 years while she interpreted for the television program, it was said that her face and hands were seen more than any other television personality nationwide. Willmington appeared in an oval inset that led her to become affectionately known as “the lady in the circle.”
In the 1970s, NBC’s Saturday Night Live even did a parody based on her interpreting. The skit featured Garrett Morris in the oval shouting the news for the hard of hearing after a news anchor reported it.
During a time when the needs of the deaf were not being met, Willmington’s journey to Lynchburg, where her ministry would be the precursor for much of today’s progress in the deaf community, is nothing less than divine providence.
Willmington learned to sign and interpret while in Indiana, at a church her husband, Dr. Harold Willmington, was pastoring. During this time, she saw a deaf man converted to Christ through her budding ministry. The man was killed in a car wreck a short time later, and Willmington knew then just how important her ministry of signing and interpreting for the deaf was.
In 1972, when her husband, at Falwell’s invitation, came to start a Bible Institute in Lynchburg as part of Falwell’s vision of a complete Christian educational system, it just so happened that Falwell, (who also had a burden for the deaf), had a great need in his church’s struggling deaf ministry.
The deaf department had begun at Thomas Road Baptist Church (TRBC) in 1968 but had not yet been developed into a full department of the church. When Sue arrived in 1972 and Falwell heard of her ministry, he encouraged her to establish such a department structured to meet the needs of deaf people.
While overseeing the deaf department, Sue Willmington was actively involved in its expansion. They started ministries, ran supportive services for the church and schools — Liberty University, Liberty Christian Academy (LCA), Willmington School of the Bible (WSB) — and taught several classes on signing and oral interpreting, as well as classes for deaf adults and children.
Sue Willmington established a program for the deaf at LCA in the early 1980s – long before state-implemented programs were in place – in which she aided in hiring qualified teachers and assistants for deaf education.
“We were putting deaf kids into LCA before they were mainstreaming in the public schools,” she said.
Sue Willmington made regular visits to schools and graduations, inviting deaf students to Liberty and WSB. She also made monthly visits to the state school for the deaf.
In 1974, the first deaf student enrolled in the Thomas Road Bible Institute (currently WSB) and in 1977, the first deaf student enrolled at the college, currently Liberty University.
As the ministry grew during the 1980s, Sue, along with her husband, hosted trips overseas to several countries, including Korea, Japan, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, England and Switzerland, bringing the gospel to deaf people internationally.
The department has experienced several changes throughout the years, but through it all, Sue Willmington has been able to reach countless people with the gospel who otherwise may never have been presented with it. She is grateful for Falwell and his leadership that allowed her ministry to flourish.
“The great thing about Jerry Falwell, Sr., is when he appointed a person to do a specific job, he gave that particular leader the freedom to develop a ministry using his or her talents and spiritual gifts to carry out that mission,” she said. “I think that is one of the secrets of this place.”
Throughout her career, Sue Willmington has been training and mentoring interpreters and still continues to teach classes at Liberty.