The following article, written by Kathryn Gregory, appeared in “The Charleston Gazette” on March 26, 2011. It is being reprinted with permission to illustrate the impact of Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI) stuttering treatment.
Gary Michael McComas grew up poor, like many children in the West Virginia hills. But one very distinct thing — an intense childhood stutter — set him apart.
Growing up on his grandparent’s tobacco farm in Lincoln County, “we didn’t have [an indoor] bathroom until I was 14,” he said.
Some rural Appalachians have low expectations of what their kids can accomplish, McComas said. In his case, with a debilitating stutter that prevented him from speaking in class or ordering in a restaurant, there wasn’t much hope.
“I had almost negative expectations,” he said.
People assumed he would get a minimum-wage job that required little, if any, social interaction, with no real advancement opportunities.
But somewhere along the way, “I decided that something in me wanted more and I knew that I could do more and be more and have more.”
Now, three college degrees, two start-up companies and a pilot’s license later, he can say things didn’t really turn out how people expected.
“Not quite,” he said with a laugh.
Life with a stutter
McComas, 51, said growing up with a stutter was a struggle.
“Trying to ask a girl out on a date when you stutter, that is hilarious,” he said.
When he left the safety of his small town to pursue a degree at Marshall University, McComas had a name changing experience.
“I had a chemistry teacher that had us fill out a form that asked for first name, middle initial,” he said. Up to that point, McComas had gone by his middle name, Michael. Afraid to make a spectacle of himself by pointing out he preferred not to go by his first name, he wrote Gary M.
It stuck. Years later, McComas goes by both names, a direct result of his childhood stammer. “I was painfully shy, and on top of that I stuttered, so I couldn’t, wouldn’t [tell anybody] different.”
Now, the Lewisburg resident is ready to share his story. And it stems from an unlikely place. McComas got the idea after watching “The King’s Speech” win Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards.
“For the first time, it’s kind of cool to have a stutter,” he said with a smile.
The movie, which was written by a man who stutters, shows numerous scenes where King George VI, played by Colin Firth, tries to master his stammer.
McComas was subjected to many of the same therapies, including one where he placed an entire handful of marbles in his mouth in an attempt to correct his stutter.
“Just like everyone else, I almost choked to death on them.”
After attending several therapies in the 1960s that were “very ineffective,” McComas tried something else in his late 20s.
“I tried this other therapy that involved putting a rubber tube in your year and talking and measuring the amount of air that was coming out,” he said. One of the main things common to stutterers is holding their breath while they speak.
It wasn’t until McComas was 36 that he found a therapy that would finally alter his speech.
He spent 21 days at the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va. The school works to retrain mouth and throat muscles so people can speak without stammering.
“I have went from literally not being able to order food in a restaurant and now, a lot of people say it was a blessing I stuttered, because I never shut up,” he laughed.
McComas learned how to control his breath at HCRI. “Before you begin speaking, you have to speak at the top of a full breath,” he said. “The technique is amazing.”
McComas, who said it took a few years to master his speech after HCRI, has actually given up a little bit of his training.
“Because I like to talk so much and so fast, I have sort of given up a bit of my disfluency so I can talk faster.”
McComas, like most people who stutter, will stammer more if he is very tired, upset or angry. “It’s all based on stress.” After years of practice though, he has learned how to recognize his trigger points, and when he does, he turns his speaking technique up and he slows down.
After his training at HCRI, McComas found confidence in himself. “I’d stand up in front of 50,000 people and give a speech,” he said. “There are some times I am going to stutter a bit. I am going to get tangled up in my words and I’ll have a little disfluency, but you know what? I don’t care.”
When McComas was a little boy, he was obsessed with airplanes and always dreamed of flying. “But I was always like ‘I can’t fly. I’m poor. I stutter. All of these things seem so out of reach.'”
As he got older, McComas learned not to fear his stuttering or be ashamed of it.
“I learned to detach who I am from my stuttering,” he said. That realization helped him on his flight path.
The company where he works (and helped found) — Greenbrier Technical Services, Inc. in Lewisburg — had a company plane, and some of his colleagues encouraged him to get a pilot’s license so he could co-pilot on company trips.
The hardest thing wasn’t learning how to get the plane off the ground, but how to talk on the radio. “In the aviation world, there are specific things you have to say. And one of the favorite techniques of people who stutter is they word substitute,” he said. “You become a walking dictionary.”
Unfortunately, that luxury is not available to McComas when he is in the air. He recalls one time — while training with a flight instructor — that he couldn’t get a specific word out. “I determined that would never happen again.”
And it hasn’t. McComas started flying in 2004 and got his license in 2007. Since then, he has also earned his multi-engine rating, seaplane rating, his tail-wheel endorsement and is working on his glider and instrument ratings.
He even traveled to Alaska last summer and took a bush pilot training course where he learned how to land on glaciers.
McComas has about 250 hours of flight time, with more than 700 landings, usually out of the Greenbrier Valley Airport in his friend’s two-seater Cessna 152.
McComas doesn’t have a plane of his own, but instead flies a Tennessee friend’s plane to keep it in good condition. He and another man keep up with the maintenance and buy fuel for the small plane.
Steering an airplane is like balancing a broom on your hand. Speaking when you stutter is sort of the same thing, McComas said.
“It takes a careful balance of the speech techniques I learned and breathing to speak normally.”
Overcoming his stutter and being a successful pilot was a result of learning a new skill set and learning to think differently to the point that it became second nature.
For now, McComas is happy working in Lewisburg and flying the small two-seater plane. One day, he hopes to head back to school to get a doctorate and teach someplace.
“If I, a poor Appalachian American boy from Lincoln County, West Virginia, can do all that I have done, can fly an airplane in and out of controlled airspace and travel the world — if I can accomplish all that I have … anybody can do it.”
Hollins Communications Research Institute was founded by Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D. in 1972 to investigate stuttering through scientific discovery and treatment innovation. Under Dr. Webster’s direction, Roanoke, Virginia-based HCRI, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, has become an international leader in stuttering research and the development of innovative, scientifically based therapy approaches.
The Institute offers 17 stuttering therapy programs annually, each of which lasts 12 days. HCRI clinicians have treated nearly 6,000 people, aged 9 to 73, from across the U.S. and 47 other countries. Clients include broadcaster John Stossel of Fox News; Annie Glenn, wife of Senator and Astronaut John Glenn; as well as athletes, teachers, engineers, students, doctors, military personnel, business professionals, police officers, actors, and others from all walks of life. For more information, visit www.stuttering.org or contact HCRI at 540-265-5650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.