In the summer of 1963, after my sophomore year in college at Saint Louis University, I came to Big Stone Gap, Va., to live and work with three other volunteers and four Catholic sisters in the coal camps outside Appalachia. I had attended Catholic schools all my life, and in high school I had several extraordinary teachers who prepared me for life by their example and teaching about Christian service, especially to the poor. I wanted to be a person who made a difference and made the world a better place.
That summer followed forced school integration in Virginia, and there was still turmoil and anger in the community. Jobs seemed scarce for either race, and I saw the dead-end spirit in too many homes. The experience made a deep impression on me, leaving me energized and challenged. It was the summer that my life turned around. My experience sensitized me to racial tension, and upon returning to my home in South Bend, Ind., I joined with others from my hometown to attend the 1963 march on Washington and heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I liked English and philosophy and biology, but I was chomping at the bit to begin my life and work. I thought I would work with children with disabilities and was interested in social work, but the degree was a six-year master’s program. Speech therapy at that time was only four years, and because I did not think I could last for six years, it became my major.
During my last year of undergraduate school, I seriously considered becoming a sister. I had visited Glenmary houses in Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee during vacations and liked what I saw. However, it was not to be. My application was refused.
I really had not pursued other options because I was determined to join the sisters. Hurt and confused, I called my friend Sis. Monica in Big Stone. She invited me to come. I could live at Holy Cross, the convent where I had stayed two summers earlier.
If I had realized the improbabilities of getting a job, I might not have driven the 500 miles to look for work. I went to a private psychiatrist’s clinic because Monica had heard the clinic psychiatrist speak about special education needs. The clinic social worker who spoke with me assured me that the public schools were neither willing to hire me nor ready for my services; however, he directed me to the courthouse where the school administrative offices were housed.
The superintendent of more than 10,000 schoolchildren in Wise County, Mr. W.D. Richmon had his office in an 8-by-8-foot closet. He asked me what speech therapists did and how many schools I could serve. I said three, and he said four: East Stone Gap, Big Stone Gap, Appalachia and Wise. He also said that if I wanted the job, I could return the next morning when the school board met. If I could talk them into it, I could have the job.
After all was said and done, I got the job—I think my starting salary was $2,800 a year. This was my first job in my field, and I did not have a supervisor or peers to help sort out the parameters of developing and running a school speech program.
Many days I visited the children in their homes after school. I enjoyed the back roads, the trees, mountains and creeks, the homes, animals and gardens. I saw my first pileated woodpecker and a hillside of trillium and other wildflowers, waterfalls, and men plowing with horses.
I showed the families what they could do to help the children with their speech. Some lived back behind strip-mining operations, and their wells no longer produced good drinking water. Several had asthma and lived near a dump that burned day and night. Usually, the families were hospitable, and I often ate with them.
I also served middle-class and town children. Generally, I did not visit in their homes, as their parents usually came to school when I invited them. In the four elementary schools where I worked, none had space for any special services. At Wise Elementary I worked in a hall outside the seventh grade. At Appalachia Elementary I shared a small room with the mimeograph machine as well as a cot for sick children. At East Stone Gap, where many children depended on the school for shoes and clothing, I worked in the old clothing room.
During my first three years, I completed a survey of the region and found that at least 20 counties around me did not have speech services. Once I went to see the only other person who seemed to be offering those services in our rural mountainous area. I drove several hours to Hazard, Ky., and spent the night with him and his family. We complained and sympathized, but we never saw each other again. He was from New York and returned there the next year. The short paper I wrote about my survey helped me understand that I could never begin to do the major work required without more education and status.
By then I was tired, and doubts about myself and my future bogged me down so much that when I applied to graduate schools, the effort was as much about finding a new life as improving my skills and knowledge. I was accepted to three schools, but chose Vanderbilt—only a six-hour trip from Big Stone Gap. I chose the Bill Wilkerson Speech and Hearing Clinic at Vanderbilt because it had instituted several programs with both rural and urban low-income children. I had heard Kay Horton (BA’51, MS’53) from the clinic speak, and I was attracted to her vision and wanted to work with her and the children she served.
School was fairly easy after the work, volunteer programs, mental juggling and stress in the mountains: just reading and working in the clinic. I took some classes at Peabody College across the street, where I was exposed to research in behavior modification and the teaching of speech to children with severe disabilities, using their model. I also worked in an excellent hearing clinic with Ann Sitton, BA’60, MS’61, a pediatric audiologist.
I remained at Vanderbilt a year after my coursework ended, but the city and the big institution were never home. Back in southwestern Virginia an educational cooperative was being formed named DILENOWISCO (short for Dickenson, Lee, Norton City, Wise and Scott counties). A primary early goal of this cooperative was the initiation of new school programs, including some for disabled individuals. When I was offered a job as a speech therapist, I took it.
I put 100,000 miles on each of the two cars I owned during my eight years with the cooperative. In 1971, I took the American Speech and Hearing Association’s exam and became a full member of their association, earning a Certificate of Clinical Competence, which completed my formal education as a speech pathologist.
During these same years I became involved with children with hearing loss. There were no ear, nose and throat doctors in the region. I saw many cases of draining ears. Because it was a common condition that usually improved with time, many people accepted it as just another childhood ailment, not worth the time and money required for treatment—a discouragement to me because infected ears can lead to hearing loss, meningitis and long-term illness.
We applied for and received a federal grant to work with the hearing impaired. Within a year we hired three teachers, a social worker and an audiologist.
Through a local community college, I started teaching sign language when no one else could be found. I could teach vocabulary and finger spelling, although my receptive sign skills continued to be inadequate. On one occasion I was trying to interpret in order to include a hearing person in a conversation with a deaf woman. We were discussing someone who had moved out of the area. I asked why this person had moved in with another man, knowing she had just left a difficult marriage. As usual, I didn’t get the message, so I requested a repeat of the finger spelling. As my deaf friend repeated—not once but several times—I began reading the finger-spelled letters and saying them aloud, but still not putting them together. S … E … X … S … E … X. In disgust, our mutual friend, who did not know a word of sign language, yelled, “Sex! Sex!”
Many years later, as I write this toward the end of my career, I am a part-time speech pathologist with Wise County schools. It’s my 45th year in the system. Although I retired in 1999, I still work two or three days a week. Many of the dreams and visions that pulled us into the struggle have been fulfilled, inspiring new hope.
Life is still really interesting to me, but I am much slower and work is harder. I look forward to a quieter life, but I hope it’s with a richness of wisdom and with more time to reflect and be with friends as we look for meaning even in our declining bodies.
This essay has been adapted with permission from Kathy Hutson’s memoir, My Adult Life in Far Southwest Virginia.