Getting Personal: Ramona Sullivan


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Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, attorney and activist RAMONA SULLIVAN, 46, of Savoy chats with staff writer Paul Wood. She talks about two serious issues close to her heart in February: domestic violence and a rare disease.

Where are you from, and how did you get here? Did you go to the University of Illinois College Of Law?

I grew up on a small farm in Edgar County. I came to the UI as an undergraduate student in 1989 and stuck around for law school.

What interests you the most right now?

My kids. They are fascinating.

You seem to be involved in very diverse things. Tell us about your domestic-violence work.

I completed the 40-hour domestic-violence training in 2001. Everyone should have access to that information, and I take any opportunity to talk in the community about it. Every February, I volunteer for a week at University High School during Agora Days to teach a class I created called "Relationships, Domestic Violence and Illinois Law." Students learn about healthy relationships, warning signs that a relationship may become abusive, domestic violence, civil remedies available for victims through court, and criminal consequences that abusers face in Illinois. This will be my fifth year volunteering at Uni. I am always happy to volunteer for other groups in the area, too.

You also have professional experience.

I have been a legal-aid attorney for over 20 years, and have represented thousands of people affected by domestic abuse. There is so much unnecessary suffering. People should be safe in their own homes. Relationships shouldn't lead to injury or incarceration. Helping young people learn how to avoid becoming a victim or an abuser is the only way to stop domestic violence.

February is also National Marfan Awareness Month.

Yes! I am always looking for ways to promote awareness. I first heard the word "Marfan" when my late husband, Lionel Williams, was diagnosed in 1996. He didn't know that he had the genetic condition until it had done catastrophic damage to his body, and it was too late to fix the damage. He had successful surgeries, including a heart transplant, but he died when he was 31. Awareness and an early diagnosis would have almost certainly changed the course of his condition. General awareness in a community about Marfan syndrome saves lives.

What could have been done for your husband if he'd known about the syndrome earlier?

Medical treatment and lifestyle modifications can lead to a normal life expectancy. It is a connective tissue disorder, affecting multiple body systems, but the cardiovascular issues are what often cause sudden death. People with Marfan syndrome need to avoid contact sports and weightlifting, and be aware of their limitations. They need regular echocardiograms to monitor the size and condition of the aorta and the heart valves. They will likely need elective surgeries to repair or replace parts of the aorta before a catastrophic event occurs.

How common is Marfan syndrome? I could be wrong, but several famous people are said to have had this condition.

About 1 in 5,000 people are affected. It is usually inherited, but sometimes spontaneous. My daughter inherited the condition from her father. Jonathan Larson, the creator of "Rent," died of undiagnosed, untreated Marfan syndrome just as his hit musical was opening. Flo Hyman, who died during a professional volleyball game, was diagnosed during her autopsy. Readers can find incredibly helpful information at

How did you deal with this tragedy?

One day at a time. I was 29 years old and nine months pregnant when I was widowed, and we also had a young son. Staying busy was easy. I worked full-time and was the only parent for two kids. I could not sleep for the first couple of years, so I wrote a screenplay about Lionel's life and death while the kids were asleep. I captured the memories, the soundtrack, the dialogue, the characters, the events. Writing was my grief therapy, and it helped me heal. You never know when majoring in rhetoric will pay off!

How do you find the time for all these interests? February must be crazy for you.

Ha! Did I mention that I am helping to plan the Eastern Illinois Foodbank 2018 Prom fundraiser right now, too? People always find time to do things that are important to them. Some people play golf or travel. I guess my hobby is trying to prevent and alleviate human suffering.

Tell us about the rest of your family.

My parents just celebrated their 54th anniversary and still live on the family farm. A fun fact is that my father still sleeps in the room where he was born. I am the youngest of five, and we all graduated from the University of Illinois at least once. I have two kids from my first marriage, Matthew (22) and Katherine (17.) I married my husband Anthony Ortega in 2010 and we have a son: Michael (3.) Another fun fact is that all three of my children were born on the last Tuesday of July.

What is your favorite book ever?

"The Missing Piece Meets the Big O" by Shel Silverstein.

What's your favorite sports team?

Chicago Cubs. Pitcher Jon Lieber is my favorite athlete of all time. (Long story!)

What would you order for your last meal?

If it's really the end, I just want a peppermint snowstorm from Custard Cup.

Who are your favorite musicians, and why?

James Taylor. He speaks to me. When he comes within driving distance, I always "pay good money to hear 'Fire And Rain,' again and again and again." That's a line from a James Taylor song, in case you aren't a fan and don't know that one.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

I can't narrow it down to one. Weddings, childbirths, goals accomplished. I treasure many memories.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people?


What's your best piece of advice?

There is no better advice than the "Golden Rule." Treat others how you want to be treated.

What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?

My first seasonal job was detasseling corn, starting at age 13. We were paid $3.35 an hour. My first year-round job was waitressing. I worked at Pizza Man during high school and Mr. Steak during college and law school.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

One of my super powers is remaining calm in stressful situations. I think the Serenity Prayer has been quietly playing on repeat in my subconscious since 1996.