News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

June 8, 2014

Finally, a chance to speak

53 years later Tommy John allowed to give high school valedictory speech

TERRE HAUTE — Fifty-three years ago, baseball legend Tommy John was denied the opportunity to give a valedictory speech at Gerstmeyer High School because he stuttered.

Today, that wrong will be made right. John will deliver a speech during the Terre Haute North Vigo High School commencement, which starts at 1 p.m. He will speak as the valedictorian of his 1961 graduating class.

He will offer advice and share some thoughts based on his own experiences, in baseball and in life. He’ll tell 2014 graduates to always remember their roots and where they came from — because in the end, that’s who they’ll always be.

John tells people he’s from Terre Haute, and proud of it.

He’ll talk about overcoming adversity, which tends to bring out personal qualities and strengths people never knew they had.

In an interview Friday, John said he hasn’t dwelled on what happened in 1961. “I forgot about it the next day,” he said. As soon as he graduated, he began his career in professional baseball.

But delivering that commencement speech — even 53 years late — is important to him “because I earned it,” he said. He had a 3.9 cumulative grade-point average and was at the top of his class. When he graduated, he had already signed with the Cleveland Indians and received a $40,000 signing bonus — which was written on his transcript.

The student record also has a quote that John would “stutter when trying to talk too fast.”

He did deliver the invocation for his 1961 high school graduation. “I didn’t stutter on that,” he said. They weren’t allowed to use note cards and everything had to be memorized. At first, “I forgot it [the invocation poem]. Then, I winged it,” he said.

John said he continued to stutter through his baseball career, but after his playing days ended, he decided to go into broadcasting. “If you want to beat something, you gotta go to the fight,” he said.

Eventually, he stopped stuttering, and today, he’s a motivational speaker. How did he overcome it?

He stopped worrying about it, he said.

When he was younger, he was very cognizant of his speech impairment and worried that he had to be perfect. “That was probably the worst thing that happened to me,” he said.

When he stuttered as a child and kids made fun of him, “the more they made fun of me,  the more I tried not to stutter, and the more I stuttered,” he said.

His parents never had the money to send him to speech therapy and back then, it wasn’t offered in schools.

But at a certain point in his life, he didn’t worry about being perfect anymore. He decided, “I am who I am … If you like me, you like me. If you don’t like me because I stutter, well that’s too bad.”

He offers words of encouragement to others who may have speech disorders. “If you do, you still are who you are. It doesn’t make you less or more, you are who you are. You just have a speech impediment. Just strive to be better,” he said.

Those challenges can be overcome. “If I could, anyone could,” he said.

The opportunity to give his valedictorian speech arose late last year 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 ceremony, he gave a speech in which he mentioned what had happened in 1961.

When Danny Tanoos, Vigo County schools superintendent, heard about the decades-old snub, he became very upset. “He was discriminated against as a student,” Tanoos said. The school system back then didn’t treat John appropriately.

Tanoos decided to offer John the opportunity he didn’t have 53 years ago — to deliver a valedictory speech as part of Terre Haute North Vigo’s commencement.

John had lived on the north side and would have attended North Vigo if he had been in high school when it opened.

Tanoos said he apologized to John for what the school system did in 1961. It was an emotional moment, Tanoos said.

“Every once in a while in this job I have a chance to right a wrong,” Tanoos said. John thanked him for the invitation to speak, and what Tanoos saw was a sense of relief and healing.

John is looking forward to giving the speech, which he promises will be “short and sweet  … I hope the kids like it.”

He’ll pass along some advice his father gave him many years ago. He’ll talk to graduates about how to reach their goals. He’ll talk about adversity and how to overcome it. “You gain strength through adversity,” John Wooden once told him.

This weekend, John has been visiting with friends and planned to attend a reception at Rick’s Smokehouse on Saturday. He also made time to visit his parents’ graves at Roselawn Memorial Park.

John is a Major League pitching legend. His 288 pitching victories rank as the seventh-highest total among left-handers in major league history. His career spanned three decades and six teams, and his groundbreaking elbow surgery in 1974 changed the game for future pitchers.

But it all started in Terre Haute — a place John is proud to call his hometown.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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