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June 4, 2014

Five decades later, pitching legend to deliver valedictorian speech

TERRE HAUTE — Tommy John, the Major League baseball pitching legend and a Terre Haute native, is slated to address the audience at Terre Haute North Vigo High School’s Class of 2014 graduation ceremonies on Sunday.

But John, whose groundbreaking elbow surgery in 1974 changed the game for future pitchers, won’t be the guest commencement speaker. Instead he’ll be speaking as the valedictorian of his 1961 graduating class.

According to a press release, the five-decade delay was the result of an administrator’s decision to deny the bright and hardworking senior the chance to carry out a time-honored tradition, simply because he happened to have a speaking disorder. The second-chance opportunity afforded John 53 years later is the Vigo County School Corp.’s chance to right a wrong.

Thomas Edward John Jr.’s 288 pitching victories rank as the seventh-highest total among left-handers in major league history. While he has yet to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, his next chance is 2016 by vote of the Hall’s veterans committee.

In a career that spanned three decades and six teams, his best-known and most lasting contribution to the sport was his willingness to submit to the ligament replacement procedure now known as Tommy John surgery.

The heart and hard work that got him through the surgery and long period of rehabilitation were the same characteristics that had helped him rise to the top of his Gerstmeyer High School graduating class in 1961.

When he was a junior, the dean of boys told him he had a chance to be class valedictorian, but there were six girls in front of him. “That gave me something to work for,” John said in an interview last week. “It got my competitive juices going.”

He said he studied hard to be No. 1, thinking all along that he would be giving the speech at graduation, until he was told another student would be making the address. “They said I’d be doing the invocation. They really didn’t tell me why,” he recalled.

But John stammered, and when he got excited, the stammer got worse. “I think they were afraid I’d get up there and start stammering,” he said. “I think they were afraid it would embarrass them and me, and they thought it was in my best interest.”

Intent on signing a major league contract with the Cleveland Indians at the end of his high school career, he let the slight go, but he never really forgot it.

Fast forward to 2013, when the Terre Haute Parks Department honored John by naming as “Tommy John Field” the neighborhood baseball diamond where he had played his last non-professional game. In town for the ceremonies, John happened to meet Danny Tanoos, Vigo County School Corp. superintendent.

“As I was talking with Danny,” John said, “I told him what had happened back in ’61 at my graduation. He just said, ‘What?!’ as if he couldn’t believe me. He asked, ‘The superintendent didn’t step in? The principal didn’t step in?’ and I said, ‘No.’”

Tanoos and Robin Smith, the principal at Terre Haute North (the 1971 consolidation of schools that included Gerstmeyer), gave John the news that he would be on the program to speak at the graduation ceremonies of the class of 2014 in June. “I’m appalled at what was done to you, and we are going to make it right,” Smith told John.

“The school system at the time didn’t treat this student appropriately,” Tanoos said. “In fact, he was discriminated against. I think it’s only the right thing to do to give someone an opportunity to do what they were rightfully supposed to do when they were in high school. I think the school system has the chance to right a wrong.”

So John agreed to be on the program in June, but only after he was assured that no one in the graduating class would be bumped to make room for him. Now in his second career as a motivational speaker, he promised the address would be short. “I don’t want to bore the kids,” he said.

John’s reaction to the invitation included some uncharacteristic tears. “I was shocked,” he said, “very touched and humbled, and very honored to be inserted into the starting lineup for graduation!”

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