Not long ago, life was grinding Tom Tate down.
He had dedicated more than a decade to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, only to see his dreams of reintegrated schools dissolve in a divided community.
The Presbyterian church he pastors was struggling to hold onto members. And his marriage had fallen apart.
As he neared 65, the traditional age for gold watches and laudatory speeches, he feared his legacy would be failure.
But life had a few plot twists left for Tate. Today he’s stepping away from his old life with the exuberant stride of a younger man.
It all started with a call from Susan Supernaw, his high school sweetheart. In 1970 she had crushed his dreams of a lifetime together.
But on that phone call she called him Tommy. He called her Susie. And after 46 years, something special rekindled.
Tommy Tate and Susan Supernaw met in 1967, in sophomore English class at Tulsa Central High School.
They became an item at an icy November football game, when he shared his blanket and gave her a ride home. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q” was playing on the radio, giving Susan a new nickname.
They were a match made in central casting. He was a 6-foot-1 basketball player with blond hair and a big grin. She was a 5-foot-3 cheerleader with the brunette beauty of her Muscogee Indian heritage.
They went to the same church. They worked on the yearbook together. They saw the movie “Camelot” and talked about being each other’s Arthur and Guinevere.
And they were co-valedictorians of the Tulsa Central Class of 1969. Tate headed to Princeton University in New Jersey, Supernaw to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
It was a time when protests against the Vietnam War roiled and National Guardsmen shot student protesters at Kent State. At the end of Supernaw’s freshman year, GWU ended the school year early because of protests. Supernaw headed home to Oklahoma. Life in the nation’s capitol wasn’t for her.
She stopped to see Tate at Princeton. They both remember it as a wonderful reunion.
But when Tate suggested they get married, Supernaw said no.
In hindsight, she says she meant “not yet.” He was 18. She was 19. They were just starting to sort out their future.
But at the time, she says, she was running away from love without understanding why. She wrote him a love poem on an index card, handing it to him as she boarded the bus.
“When I part from you friend, grieve not,” the poem said. “My best was yours. You will always be a part of me.”
Tate’s eyes were too full of tears to see her wave goodbye.
Supernaw and Tate stayed in touch, but it wasn’t the same.
Supernaw enrolled at Phillips University in Enid, Okla., where friends nominated her to compete in the Miss Phillips pageant. She won. She was named Miss Oklahoma in 1971, and when she went on to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Tate was there to greet her.
When she called him to catch up in 1973, he was married. A few years later she was too.
Supernaw went on to teach math, work for Americans for Indian Opportunity, run her own business in Chicago and was featured in a documentary on American Indians narrated by Robert Redford. She eventually put down roots in Albuquerque.
Tate graduated from Princeton and became a minister, a calling that landed him at Charlotte’s Plaza Presbyterian Church in 1988. He has been its pastor for almost 30 years.
Tate was active in his children’s public schools and in the Swann Fellowship, an advocacy group named for the family that sued to desegregate Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the 1960s. He watched as court battles dismantled that desegregation plan. Many schools returned being to mostly black or mostly white, with a growing Hispanic population adding to the mix.
When Louise Woods retired from the school board in 2005, she asked Tate if he’d be interested in representing east Charlotte. He got the blessing of his family and his congregation, then won the seat three times — in 2005, 2009 and 2013.
Tate says he learned that it’s much harder to change a huge school system than to make suggestions from the outside. With an assignment plan based on boundary lines, racially and economically isolated schools often reflected housing patterns. Efforts to force diversity met ferocious political resistance.
By the middle of Tate’s third term, the board was racially split over finding a new superintendent. Mostly-white suburban schools and high-poverty urban ones remained a world apart. Tate, who led the committee charged with hashing out new assignment policies, was visibly frustrated and weary.
PRAYERS AND PROMISES
In 2010, University of Nebraska press published Supernaw’s memoir, Muscogee Daughter, which included her youthful romance with Tate. She called when she was working on it to get his permission. By then she was a widow, and she enjoyed reliving those memories with him. But he was still married, so she was careful to keep things professional.
A few years later, a relative told her Tate’s marriage had broken up. There were a few more phone calls, and talk about meeting at a high school reunion. That plan was thwarted when the reunion didn’t happen.
In spring of 2016, Supernaw called to seek Tate’s advice as a minister on an interfaith trip to Europe. That’s when she slipped and used his high school nickname.
“Can I call you Susie?” Tate asked.
“And I said of course,” Supernaw recalls. “And once we started calling each other Tommy and Susie we just …”
“It was like we had never been apart,” Tate says.
They arranged to meet for Tate’s 65th birthday in August. She wasn’t sure she’d recognize a bearded, graying version of her high-school beau, so they agreed that when they met at the baggage claim in Charlotte’s airport, she’d say “Marco” and he’d say “Polo.”
“That way I won’t walk off with the wrong white-bearded old guy,” she quipped.
They planned to spend a few days at the beach. Both brought a stack of DVDs to watch, just in case the chemistry was gone and there were awkward gaps to fill.
But after a hug at the baggage carousel and a long kiss in the car, it was pretty clear they wouldn’t need them.
Tate also brought his guitar. Soon after they split up, he had gotten the John Denver album “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” That song had always made him think of Susie. There at Sunset Beach, he sang her the lines that could have been written for the two of them at that very moment:
How sweet it is to love someone
How right it is to care
How long it’s been since yesterday
What about tomorrow?
Facing the sunset
It wasn’t long before she was wearing a silver infinity ring to symbolize Tate’s devotion. On Feb. 26, 2017, they were married at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.
Just being in love would have put the spring back in Tate’s step. But hope broke through in his public life as well.
The school board eventually united on hiring a superintendent and approving a student assignment plan. No, it didn’t solve the problems of racial and economic division that plague schools across the nation. But Tate sees steps in the right direction, as well as encouragement in the community’s reaction to Superintendent Clayton Wilcox.
On Nov. 7, almost 106,000 voters said yes to school bonds, shattering the old record. Carol Sawyer, Tate’s pick to take his place, won her race too.
On Nov. 8 Tate attended his last board meeting. All that’s left is a farewell reception in December.
Plaza Presbyterian, built for 1,000 members in the 1950s, still has a shrinking and elderly congregation, with 50 seats filled on a good Sunday. But they have embraced Tate through all his changes. They welcomed Supernaw warmly when he introduced her as an old friend in town for a visit, then stood and applauded when he announced later that she was his fiancee.
Now Tate is 66 and Supernaw is 67. He hasn’t set a retirement date, but it’s not too far away. Saying goodbye to his congregation will be hard, but Oklahoma beckons.
They already have land picked out for their house. They’ll camp and garden. He might give communion at Indian churches that lack a pastor. She might run for public office.
Whatever comes next, Susie and Tommy will be together.