Gandhi once said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” A beautiful mantra but not necessarily practiced by most. Unless of course, you are writer, teacher, actor, mother, fitness instructor, and Texas native Sue Bilich. Bilich truly embodies what it is to be a “life-long learner” and we had the pleasure of speaking (over zoom) about her amazing life story and what it takes to balance such a full life.
Nectar News: Sue, you have worn many hats in your life from actor to singer, improviser, writer, fitness instructor. So let’s start at the very beginning: where were you born and how did you start your career?
Sue Bilich: Well, I was born in Galveston, Texas in 1935. I’m old. As we say in Texas, I’m older than dirt. My mom and dad both came from Russia and came to America when they were very young. My dad wound up in Texas and my mom wound up in Philadelphia. So my dad came from Texas, got on a ship, and worked his way up to Philadelphia to see his sister who lived across the street from my mother’s family. And his daddy’s sister and my mother’s mother wanted to get them together. Well, they fell in love and the rest is history. They got married and she moved to Texas to be with my dad.
My family loved living down there. We would take trips to Houston to buy kosher meat for my grandmother. And of course, when the shrimp boats came in, all my aunts would gather around the kitchen table at our house and pull the tails off the shrimp. I had a lot of good friends from different faiths and went to Jewish camps so that I could enjoy my Jewish identity. We were raised Orthodox and Galveston had a temple and synagogue. And we went to Beth Jacob, the synagogue.
I graduated from Texas City High School in 1953 and went to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. From there I went to the University of Texas for a year. I wanted to be a costume designer, but I didn’t do too well in chemistry. So I was invited to come back at another time. Instead of staying, I went to the University of Houston and that’s where I met my husband Melvin, Mel. He was in the Air Force at Ellington. We met at the Hillel which met once a month at the Jewish fraternity. I was in a show for the Jewish fraternity called Frontier Fiesta, dancing, roller skating, and jumping rope at the same time if you can believe that. We met in November of 1956 and got married on September 1st, 1957.
I got pregnant right away and we moved within six months because being in the Air Force, he was being transferred from Air Training Command to Strategic Air Command. So we went out to California and I had our first child, our daughter Lindy, at a hospital there. It cost $25.
SB: I know? Can you believe it? Different times. From there we went to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and 15 months later I had Jimmy. It also cost $25. And then the next year I had Steve and I had him on base. It cost $7.25. If you can imagine. Then we moved up to Maine and all the time that we were in the Air Force. I say we were in the Air Force because I felt like I was. When you’re in the military, it doesn’t matter what branch of service it is, the wife is definitely part of that.
NN: What were you doing during that time?
SB: I was a volunteer in the hospital and worked in the OB-GYN clinic. After having four babies, I felt like I knew a little bit about that. After Mel came home from serving in Vietnam for a year, we moved to Bossier City and I went back to school and got my degree in art education and physical education.
We moved here to Austin Texas after my husband retired and I taught exercise at the Jewish Community Center and worked for the city in the summertime teaching swimming to people with disabilities. I like to call it different abilities. I did that for five summers with a crew of people. And I learned to sign a little bit and taught people that were blind and people that had physical disabilities. It was very rewarding. I liked that a whole lot. Then I got involved in theater.
NN: How did you make that transition into theater?
SB: Well when we were in the air force, we used to put together shows because in Maine we were two and a half miles from the Canadian border and you had to create your own entertainment. And I had always been involved in dancing and singing. I learned how to tap dance at age four. So I love to tap dance. I don’t do too much of that now, but we would just organize our own fun. And the wives were a lot of fun and everyone enjoyed what we were all doing. So I just kept doing it. Once we got here, I worked at the Hillel Foundation and was in charge of programming there.
NN: Wow, It’s really beautiful and interesting to hear about how you’ve lived in all these different places. And how those locations have all led you to have this unique career path and life.
SB: Well, doors open up. And I just feel like there are signs. I always tell my kids, there’s a sign. When you see this sign coming up and it’s not on a road, it’s just that little things keep happening around you that indicate there’s going to be a change in your life and that you have to recognize those signs of change. I can’t get bored, I’m never bored.
NN: It sounds like you really just followed your bliss, followed your joy.
SB: Well, yeah, like I said, when one door closes, another door opens and you have to recognize the signs and everybody’s got a talent and you can use your talent in more than one area. If you’re creative, you can teach it. You can volunteer to use it. I worked when we first got to Austin, after my husband retired, I volunteered at the state. Don’t sit on your hands and not meet people. You have to make an effort. And I know if you’re shy, it can be very painful, but you still have to make that little effort. And it doesn’t matter who the person is. It’s just reaching out to all kinds of people because there’s such a need for volunteers, and a volunteer job can lead to a paying job.
NN: You have been doing voice-over as well. How did you get into that?
SB: I have always been a singer and I decided I would take a class in voiceover here in Austin and did a little bit of that. And then I have a really good friend, Diana Dormen, we’re kind of like Thelma and Louise. We do a lot together. And we belonged to the Audio Book Publishers Association in New York for many years. We were going to the National Audio Theater Festivals and we went to one in West Plains, Missouri, and they moved it to Kansas City. And so we both flew up there and took classes and then participated in radio theater, which I love. I think radio theater is so good. Then Diana’s husband got cancer and mine has dementia. So we couldn’t travel anymore to go to these, and just this weekend, the NATF, National Audio Theater Festivals, and the Here Now Festivals are doing their classes on Zoom. So this past weekend, Diana` and I did, just to brush up with, get back into it. We did the class on finding your characters and audiobook reading and improvisation. Next week, I’m going to take a class on how to write a radio play.
NN: Wow. I’m so motivated by you. You’re really an advocate for lifelong learning and trying new things. What would you say to any people who might be intimidated by taking new classes or trying new things, especially as they get older?
SB: There is no need to feel intimidated by it. You can just sit there and listen if you want. I’ve been very fortunate to have really good instructors that are very encouraging. And I teach storytelling at the J here with Diana, and we encourage people to tell their stories. We belong to the Tejas Storytelling group here in Texas. And even if you sit in the room and listen, you’re doing something rather than nothing. There’s too much in life to learn from and participate in and share what you know because everybody knows something. And there are other people out there that are interested in a particular subject but don’t know anything about it. And somebody in the class might say, “Well, how do you do this, this and this?” And then silence. Then finally you’ll raise your hand and say, “I can do that.” And then you start talking and before you know it you’ve taught somebody how to search for a particular area of interest or how to learn from listening to somebody else.
Right now I’m learning to record by taking a class in Pro Tools. I couldn’t spend five hours in a studio at the college because I would have to be home to fix dinner for my husband and I didn’t have any help in the house now. So I’m doing it all now.
NN: It sounds like you’ve been a lifelong balancer, from what I hear.
SB: Yeah, I do a lot of balancing.
NN: What would some of your advice be about balancing and multitasking?
SB: Well, take notes. I tend to keep a calendar and write down whatever I hear. One thing I did, one time I was on a trip, I took a group to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. And I love the Irish accent. I think it’s so much fun. Beautiful. It’s so lyrical. So I was in a store, a little shop, and these two women were talking and I went up to them and I said, “Would you mind if I recorded your accent?” And I told them who I was, that I was visiting Ireland and they let me record. When we teach our classes, I tell people, just spend a day sitting on a park bench and watch people. You’ll find your character right there. The first time I went to New York, I saw all these people talking to themselves and I thought, God, are they, schizophrenics. No, they were just actors learning their parts, walking down the street with their headphones in their ears.
NN: Tell me a little bit about your writing.
SB: Oh yes, the writing. The one thing that COVID has done is that I had to figure out what I can do so that I don’t get bored staying at home. I’ve always written a little bit. I’ve done theater with my one-woman shows. When you’re kind of shut-in, you start getting these thoughts about how would so and so feel if this happened to them? So I thought, what would a bra feel like if you suddenly just ignored it, it was your favorite bra and you wore it all the time? And then suddenly it started losing its zip and zap and you just slung it and you washed it. And how would a bra feel about that? And so I just started doing that. And then there’s that neighbor that has this weird tree in her yard and it looks like a monster. And when I sit down to write, I just think of things. And then all of a sudden other thoughts come up. And so I write something and I read it and then I edit it in Pro Tools after I’ve written it.
I grew up in a family of people that liked to tell stories. I had an aunt that would take care of us when we were children. And she always told us stories. I guess I got that from her.
NN: My last question for you is what would you say the one secret to having a long happy life is?
SB: Having a long, happy life? Lucky. I’m just active. If I don’t exercise, I could feel the difference. That’s the one thing that’s bothered me about being home a lot, that I used to teach water aerobics and I’m not doing that. So I really miss that. And my mom was a diabetic and I have diabetes, but it’s very early, so I have to think about that, too. I get up around 4:30 in the morning and I start reading. So with COVID, I became more of an avid reader. I’ve been reading all these wonderful books and mostly by women.
Just keep active. I think if you’re not active, even though my husband has dementia and he just sits in his chair all day and watches TV, he works word puzzles. And we watch, what is that show on TV? Wheel of Fortune. And I’m sitting there going, and right away he knows what it is because he works those word puzzles. If you neglect a part of your body, then it’s going to evaporate, it petrifies. And volunteer, because the more you help other people, the more you help yourself, too. And the more you learn about other people and you become very tolerant and try to understand what another person is going through.