Kennedy: Chattanooga businessman remembers being called out for stuttering

Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy. Local business owner Bill Smith stands in the waiting room of the Speech and Hearing Center offices near Shallowford Road on Wednesday. When he was a boy in the 1950s, Smith got help with a speech impairment from a therapist at the center.
Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy. Local business owner Bill Smith stands in the waiting room of the Speech and Hearing Center offices near Shallowford Road on Wednesday. When he was a boy in the 1950s, Smith got help with a speech impairment from a therapist at the center.


Bill Smith, 70, remembers the sting of his first day at school. It was 1958, and his first grade teacher at Bess T. Shepherd Elementary called on him to introduce himself to the class.

Because of a speech impairment, Smith stuttered trying to say his name. Some of the other children gave him the shame-shame finger gesture, rubbing one index finger over the other.

"It was very hard to listen to me, back then," he said in an interview. "I couldn't say two words without stumbling all over myself."

Perhaps looking to his teacher for support in that moment, Smith got the opposite.

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"She told me, 'You go stand in the hall until you learn how to talk right,'" recalled Smith, a Chattanooga business owner.

While he was standing in the hall, he remembers the principal of the school asking him what was wrong. A false rumor had spread among the first graders that the principal had an "electric paddle," so young Bill was mortified to be approached by the administrator.

But far from being punished, he was consoled by the principal. It was the classroom teacher who got a finger-wagging lecture, he said.

Today, 64-years-later, Smith said he still considers that day in 1958 a turning point in his life.

The principal called his dad and together they arranged for him to be introduced to a speech therapist from the Speech and Hearing Center, a then-new nonprofit in Chattanooga designed to help children and adults with communication issues.

In 1953, the year the center opened, an estimated 900 children in the local school system needed help with their speech, but fewer than 10% were being assisted, according to press reports from the period.

Now, 70 years later, more than 5,000 clients a year — young and old — are served by the Speech and Hearing Center, which has offices off Shallowford Road.

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"We've touched a lot of lives," Taylor Bostwick, president and CEO of the center, said in an interview. "We are one of those organizations that 'if you know, you know.' If a family member — or yourself — have needed our services, you know how integral a role we play in the community."

Bostwick said an open house at the center, at 2212 Encompass Drive, is scheduled for 10 a.m. on May 10 to honor the 70th anniversary of the agency, which operates through physician referrals and some workplace and school testing.

Smith remembers his first 30-minute meeting with a speech therapist from the center. He said the sessions were focused on breathing exercises and concentration to help him master his speech.

His therapist — whom he remember only as "Mrs. Ellison" — was a kind soul who was always giving him pep talks to boost his confidence.

"She'd say, 'It's (like) building blocks, Bill. This is a struggle, but you will overcome it," he recalled.

Over time his speech improved, although he still struggled some into his 30s. He still trips up occasionally and even has to pause before pronouncing his wife's name, Vivian.

But the lessons he learned as a child from his speech therapist helped him build a successful business, Foundry Pattern Services Inc., on East 38th Street.

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He finds himself using her advice on a host of life issues: Slow down. Keep focused. Build confidence one block at a time.

When his business burned in 2011, he was resolute in building it back. When he was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, he used the tactics again. (He is now cancer-free.)

"That's been a pattern in my life, through a lot of struggles," Smith explained. "... Throughout your life you learn a lot. I know what it feels like to be chastised. I'd never want to do that with someone who has a problem with hearing or speaking.

"... (Now) it's wonderful to wake up every day. I know what death tastes like. I've been blessed with a second chance."

One day when he was 16, Smith was working in the produce department at a local Red Food store when his old therapist — Mrs. Ellison — appeared.

He hugged her, and thanked her.

"I can't say enough about her," he said, remembering the hurt little boy that somehow bloomed in the glow of human kindness.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.


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