By Cheryl Truman
You might not have met Leigh Anne Tuohy, but you probably know her voice from the silver screen. It sounds just like Sandra Bullock interpreted it: a little bit Memphis, a little bit insistent, a whole lot of steel. It’s the voice that told her adopted son, Michael Oher, that football was like defending the family. If he had her back, she told him, he also needed to have the back of the team member whose blind side he was defending.
Bullock nailed that hard-driving Memphis lilt in her 2010 Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side, the movie that made Bullock a character-acting legend and Tuohy a force in national motivational speaking and fund-raising. Tuohy and her husband, Sean, fast-food moguls, became famous after adopting Oher, a black teenage student who had suffered a calamitous home life. Oher went on to excel in high school football and at the University of Mississippi, which he attended with his sister, Collins Tuohy, and he now plays for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
Bullock had a dialogue coach to capture the distinctive rhythm of Tuohy’s voice, “and they would worry the ever-living stew out of me,” said Leigh Anne Tuohy, who’s scheduled to make three speaking appearances in Kentucky next month, including at the Lexington Opera House on Feb. 4. The movie caught all the details of Tuohy’s style, “down to my fingernail polish.” Capturing Tuohy’s lack of patience with bigots was another challenge. Tuohy still has little patience with those who see her family as anything other than a gift that keeps on giving to all its members.
“Give me a ‘Stupid’ stamp and let me just put it on peoples’ foreheads,” she said. “For the most part, we ignore it because we have seen it all.” After the success of The Blind Side — the movie made close to $256 million in the United States alone, according to the Internet Movie Database — Tuohy found herself known worldwide. She decided to do something with all that name recognition. She acknowledges that “pay it forward” might be getting a big cliched, but she and her family — including Sean, Collins and son S.J. — decided to use all that publicity to do good. The family started the MakingItHappen Foundation (Makingithappenfoundation.com) which, Tuohy says, “tries to make things happen one person or one organization at a time.”
The last year has been difficult in terms of deciding which people to help, Tuohy said. She has heard heart-rending recession stories from those who were being evicted from their homes: “It rips your heart out, the stories we heard.”
How do they decide?
“We live by the popcorn theory,” she said. “We truly live by what lifts up and hits us in the face.” Nonetheless, she said, she likes to see what good is done with the money dispensed — so she keeps up with those being helped. The foundation sends a letter to those who donated and tells them what the money was used for during the last year, she said. “I want you to know, when you give money to the foundation, what it went for. It’s not there to collect interest. It’s there to use. I really want people to know that their money is not going into a black hole.
“I’m amazed by when you help people how they turn around and help someone else,” she said. “There’s a lot of good people in this country. That’s why I get so exasperated with the nightly news.” Her foundation and the giving she does through her church are separate, she said. “Our faith, we’ve very committed to that,” she said. Tuohy estimates that she made 35 to 40 speaking engagements in 2011.
And still she is amazed that the story of how her family came to adopt Michael Oher, their third child, resonates years after The Blind Side became a book and then a movie. “That young man has probably brought more joy into our home than anything we could have anticipated or imagined,” she said.