In northern Colorado among the Rockies, there was a place between towns.
If you went one way, you’d hit a town that had one store. Beyond that, a town with two stores, and another had four. If you traveled 50 miles you’d hit Steamboat Springs, Colo.
In this place between towns and so far away from labels, Ken St. Louis grew up on a cattle and sheep ranch. Until he was 10, he was the only student in his grade in a one-room country school. For much of that time, everyone else in the school was a member of his family, including the teacher, his aunt.
People didn’t make fun of him for his stuttering, a flaw that is so often stigmatized today. But he was a perfectionist. He hated judging cattle for 4-H because it required a five-minute speech. But he did it.
Then things got worse.
“I started dating and calling up girls,” he said. “It was awful. You know it’s tough enough anyway. ‘Here I am; reject me.’ But then to stutter on top of that?”
No one had heard of speech therapy where he lived. So you steeled yourself, just like his uncle and father had, and plowed ahead.
But between his junior and senior year of high school, he knew he needed a change. He went to his mother and told her he had to do something.
So he went to Wyoming’s land-grant university for a six-week summer clinic. He can’t remember when it happened during those weeks, but at the end of them, he spoke fluently and he knew what he wanted to do.
He wanted to end stuttering.
I can still remember the wave of relief I had after leaving my first appointment and we had a plan. Dr. St. Louis changed my son’s life. The community needs more people like him. I know that this profession is what Dr. St. Louis was called to do with his life, and I feel very lucky to have met him.
-Patient Zackary’s mother
The boy who wanted to deliver a crushing blow to the constant companion of his childhood is now 67. He hasn’t stopped stuttering among the human race. He chuckles. He’s probably 100 years too soon on that one, but he’s still tried.
For nearly 36 years, he has done his part to ease the suffering of stutterers in West Virginia and throughout the world. St. Louis, the only board-recognized specialist in fluency disorders in West Virginia has taught, researched and served hundreds of patients free of charge as a professor at West Virginia University where he is being recognized with the university’s highest service award: the Ethel and Gerry Heebink Award for Distinguished State Service.
“My mouth is broke”
In the mid-1990s a young boy named Zackary stuttered so badly he decided to give up talking.
His mother heard by accident of St. Louis, who was long into his research and teaching career at WVU in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology.
“The little boy was 4 years old,” St. Louis said. “I remember the first day he came in. He said his mouth was broken.”
Over the course of a year, the boy moved from stuttering into fluent speech and has now finished high school. Without reminders from others, he doesn’t even remember stuttering.
“Here is a person who, depending on the attitudes of the family could be either mildly to severely handicapped,” St. Louis said. “He grew up perfectly normal in that respect. It’s always rewarding. It makes me know that that’s what I wanted to do.”
For adults, it’s unlikely that they’ll completely lose the signs of their speech disorders completely. Sometimes stuttering isn’t as much about the stutter as the behavior used to mask it and the anxiety within.
Tiffany Summerlin hid her stuttering so well that those around her would have never guessed. If she thought she wouldn’t speak accurately at a moment, she just wouldn’t speak.
A former marine, she thought that being a homemaker would suit her secret.
“I knew that going to school and having a professional career was out of the question for me,” she writes of that time.
But Morgantown had a National Stuttering Association support group, the only one in the state, which was founded by St. Louis. She went to meetings, suffered through revealing her fears and feelings and within a few years decided to attend WVU where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and graduated with the University’s Outstanding Senior award, one of the highest bestowed.
The people St. Louis has touched are grateful, not just for how their lives have improved, but also for knowing him.
Zackary’s mom felt better after their first meeting.
“I can still remember the wave of relief I had after leaving my first appointment and we had a plan,” she said. “Dr. St. Louis changed my son’s life. The community needs more people like him. I know that this profession is what Dr. St. Louis was called to do with his life, and I feel very lucky to have met him.”
Summerlin feels the same way.
“The passion that Ken has for people who are affected by stuttering is tangible all throughout West Virginia and beyond, and I would hate to consider what I would have missed out on had I not been touched by that passion,” Summerlin said.
St. Louis’ stuttering is under control. Except when he’s speaking Turkish, a language he learned during his time in the Peace Corps after graduation. His own liberation drives him forward.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever felt just like you have no control over something, like you’re a pawn in somebody else’s chess game,” he said. “You’re just a leaf in the wind. You can’t guide your own destiny.”
Once he regained control of this part of his life, he didn’t lose it again.
Not everyone has been as fortunate.
Fifteen years ago, in an attempt to give his students a human face for stuttering, he asked them to find someone who stutters and record his or her story. In 30 minutes of face-to-face time, the students came to understand what their future clients would be up against.
St. Louis has now collected 400 stories, some of which have made it into his book Living with Stuttering: Stories, Basics, Resources, and Hope. The rest are in his file cabinets and periodically travel through his thoughts.
“You just see how people deal with adversity and how many of them overcome it, and it’s sad but how some people don’t,” St. Louis said. “Just because you stutter, you don’t have to not say what you want to say to whom you want to say it when you want to say it and do whatever you were going to do if you didn’t stutter.”
The passion that Ken has for people who are affected by stuttering is tangible all throughout West Virginia and beyond, and I would hate to consider what I would have missed out on had I not been touched by that passion.
Former WVU Outstanding Senior
He knows he can’t help everyone. But he’s hopeful because of those who, even with stuttering, come through it to get an education and good jobs.
St. Louis is optimistic, which is fitting for someone who has done so much toward attaining his boyhood goal of stamping out stuttering.
There’s an estimated 27,000 people in West Virginia who suffer from stuttering and related disorders. That’s a lot. But for one man, St. Louis has accomplished a lot.
He has formed support groups and counseled hundreds of clients and consulted with therapists treating their own clients. He’s the only college professor in the state who specializes in fluency disorders and has taught nearly 3,000 students who are presumably going on to assist thousands more. His name is on more than 100 research papers on the topic of fluency disorders and he has developed a public opinion survey that so far is measuring the attitudes toward stuttering in 19 countries and 12-15 languages, which has the power to lead to the removal of some of the stigma surrounding the disorder.
Though he’s being recognized for service now, he was previously recognized as a Benedum Distinguished Scholar at WVU for his research in the social sciences.
On one level his tale isn’t glamorous. He’s been a professor working 60-hour weeks where he supervises students, manages clients and pores over information.
But there have been moments from people like Tiffany Summerlin, Zackary, and even his own daughter, where they prevailed over stuttering.
“It makes me feel I must have made the right choice,” St. Louis said. “I’d wondered over the years if maybe I shouldn’t have been an engineer or something else. I don’t think I would have any more reward than I’ve had.”
“My own stuttering has led me to a very productive and rewarding life. I guess you can’t ask for too much more than that.”
By Diana Mazzella
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