The stutterer



How singing smoothly—and well—helped a brother who stuttered overcome shyness and a speech disability. ©Thinkstock

When my brother, John—we nicknamed him Legs because of his height—failed the first grade in public school, we kidded him about it. There were a lot of red ‘F’s on his report card for failing, 16 as I recalled, and poor Legs was subjected to unmerciful, though good-natured, taunting by his classmates as well as by me and my youngest brother, Dennis.

What we didn’t know at the time—and I actually didn’t discover this until many years later—was that Legs did not fail because of lack of intelligence. He had a speech disability that blocked him from responding properly to the teacher’s questions and it prevented him from participating in discussions in class.

He was a stutterer. Let him describe the problem in his own words.

“It all started when I was just three years old,” he said. “Mom told me she was watching me eating one day. While I was attempting to put the food into my mouth, I missed. And I said, “You-you-you want to stay in my mouth or you-you-you want to stay out?”

“That was the beginning of my disorder, as my speech therapist told me quite a few years later.”

“All the while I was growing up, I stuttered. In first grade, the teacher flunked me because I couldn’t speak like the other kids. She thought I was dumb because I would never say anything. My “You-you-you’s” turned into a block.

“My speech therapist, Mr. Learmen, told me in my speech therapy classes (1961) that I reasoned it would be better not to say anything and block, as he called it, than try to speak and fail. To this day, I am still a blocker, although it isn’t nearly as bad as when I was a child. Anytime I say something and the word refuses to come out, I will change the word and it still works to this day.”

We grew up in the countryside about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. While I was concentrating on baseball, girls and trying to be a writer, Legs was working on becoming a singer.

He was 12 when he found out he could sing better than anyone in his class and perhaps in the entire school. This helped build his confidence and took away some of his shyness.

He still stutters a little, but he is so smooth at getting past his block you can hardly notice it.

“Most of the popular girls in school stayed away from me even though people thought I looked somewhat like Elvis Presley or Sean Penn because of my hair,” Legs said. “When it was prom time in my senior year at Sewickley Township High School in Herminie, a couple of girls who weren’t that popular hinted they wanted me to take them to the prom.”

“Well, I talked myself out of it! I thought, ‘This isn’t cool. If I can’t get the prettiest one, I just won’t go.’”

“Boy, do I regret that attitude to this day. Most of those girls have been married 50 years or more, while the prettier, popular ones have been divorced two or three times.”

When my brother graduated from high school, he joined a local popular rock and roll group, Dickie and the Three Vales. They were booked at some of the local clubs including dance hops hosted by a well-known local radio personality.

“That really built up my confidence,” Legs said. “I forgot all about my stuttering. I figured I would let the other guys in the group do all the talking. All I had to do was sing.”

Over the years my brother sang with various groups in the places he lived and today Legs and his wife, Marie, live in Sutersville, Pa., where he is a member of the Steel City Quartet, a gospel group that travels throughout the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, to sing in live concerts. They do more than 100 live concerts each year in churches, fire halls, campgrounds, retirement homes and at other public places. He has made many CDs, appeared on television and recently was honored by being named to the Gospel Hall of Fame.

He still stutters a little, but he is so smooth at getting past his block you can hardly notice it.

Today Legs can joke about his stuttering. He had a friend, Eddie Hopp, who was from Sutersville. When he is doing a gospel concert, Legs often tells the following story that always makes the audience laugh.

“Eddie and I would meet at the local Dairy Queen. He stuttered even worse than I did—if that was possible. He would come up to me and say, ‘J-J-J-John, d-d-do you have 15 m-m-minutes?’ I would say, ‘S-S-Sure, Eddie. W-W-Why?’ And Eddie would say, ‘B-B-Because I w-w-want to have a five m-minute conversation with you.’”

My brother, the singer. If the Steel City Quartet ever performs in your hometown or anywhere near you, be sure to catch their act. You’ll go home smiling.

GENO LAWRENZI JR. is an international journalist, magazine author, ghostwriter and novelist who lives in Missouri. His email address is [email protected]


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