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  1. Life & Culture

A tribute to those who help us find our voices

A news anchor overcame a childhood stutter with help from the writer’s mother.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hugs Brayden Harrington, 12, at a campaign stop at Cilford Community Curch, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Gilford, N.H. Biden and Harrington have spoken to each other about their stutter they have both struggled with. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hugs Brayden Harrington, 12, at a campaign stop at Cilford Community Curch, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Gilford, N.H. Biden and Harrington have spoken to each other about their stutter they have both struggled with. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]
Published Nov. 5, 2020

You would never know it by watching him broadcast the news in Pittsburgh, or by sitting in on one of his classes at Duquesne University, or by listening to him report the results of a presidential election, but there was a time, in his childhood, when news anchor Mike Clark had a difficult speech impediment.

He stuttered.  It got so bad that his older brothers, his school friends, even his Dad made fun of him. “Just spit it out!” they would tell him.

“It was significant enough that I still remember my machine gun-like stammering,” he remembered, “and the searing heat filling up my cheeks and my ears when people would mock me.” Tough going for a 6-year-old.

Pittsburgh news anchor Mike Clark as a first grader in Long Island.
Pittsburgh news anchor Mike Clark as a first grader in Long Island. [ Courtesy of Mike Clark ]

Then something happened.  Young Mike was a first-grade student at St. Aidan School in Williston Park, New York, a Long Island suburb about 20 miles from Manhattan. A Catholic nun named Sister Aileen was his teacher. A lively volunteer, a parish mom named Shirley, would visit the class, reading to the children, singing songs, directing little classroom plays.

In one such play, Shirley offered the lead role of Father Robin to Mike.  “You have a beautiful voice,” she told him. His wife was played by little Ellen Ward, his children by Cathy Stalters and John Jacob. The role of the mean Blue Jay was given to Dennis Redmond. Mike Clark is 57 now, but recites these names from yesteryear as if the play were yesterday. It would be his job to protect the nest of the Robins from attacks from the Blue Jays.

When Mike had landed the lead role, he rushed home to tell his mother, Margie, who became concerned. She knew Shirley from the Mother’s Club and the Rosary Society and phoned her.  “You know Mike stutters,” she explained, “and I wouldn’t want the other kids to make fun of him.”  Whatever Shirley told Margie, Mike’s mom was persuaded that everything would work out. And it did, in ways that no one could have imagined.

“It was an important experience in my life,” wrote Mike in an email. “The fact that I remember everything in great detail is one indication.  Because I was suddenly ‘the voice,’ I had an identity. After the play, my classmates looked up to me.  I could feel their acceptance. From then on, I always wanted to read clearly and do my best with my voice.  I was chosen to read at Masses. I read the morning announcements. I introduced guests at school assemblies. More plays.”

Shirley, he says, “put me on the path. How did she do it? Why did she do it? I don’t know. She must have loved challenges. And she surely must have loved me. Seeing something in me that she could mold into a better version of who I was.”

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I learned this story at the wake of my mother — Shirley Clark. She died at 95 in 2015, and many of her friends and admirers came to the wake to testify to how she “changed children’s lives.”

At the age of 90, Shirley Clark was stilling visiting school children to encourage their creativity.
At the age of 90, Shirley Clark was stilling visiting school children to encourage their creativity. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

Wakes and funerals, of course, are not for the dead but for the living. The sons and daughters of those who have passed away get to listen to the legacies of parents, learning, sometimes to their surprise, that moms and dads lived lives that transcended those of their offspring.

Margie Clark (no relation) came to the wake to tell us a story of Shirley’s legacy, about how she transformed Mike’s speech from a curse into a blessing. If the citizens of the great city of Pittsburgh are satisfied with the quality of broadcast news in the Steel City — especially in this year of pandemic, recession, social unrest, environmental catastrophe and presidential election — they have my mommy to thank for it.

Two-minute speech inspires

For me, the most authentic moment of the 2020 presidential campaign came in a two-minute speech, delivered by 13-year-old from his bedroom. Millions heard him praise Joe Biden in August during the Democratic Convention. Biden had encouraged the young man to work through his speech impediment. Both Brayden and Biden stutter.

The story of Biden’s childhood stutter has been well told in reports in the Atlantic and the Washington Post.  Like Mike Clark, Biden attended Catholic school, but with a much crueler experience. A nun – who has a lot to answer for – called him “Mr. Buh-Buh-Biden” and humiliated him by insisting that he stand before the class and try to read passages from a book.

With a determination that would one day lead to high political office, Biden worked on his problem over the years.  He would practice speaking by reading aloud the work of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. And he learned to mark full phrases in texts, easier to pronounce than individual words.

On a campaign stop in New Hampshire in February, Biden met Brayden and taught him these strategies. In his speech, Brayden held up his text to illustrate how he had marked it up. What made the speech so powerful was that Brayden stuttered on a few words, but worked his way through them.

More than 70 million people across the globe stutter. Suddenly they had an eighth-grader as a role model. Dan Rather called his performance an example of “pure, unvarnished courage.” Brayden told an international audience: “I’m just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life.”

Voice of the anchor

Mike Clark, the man who stuttered as a child, has anchored the news at WTAE in Pittsburgh since 1995.  He has won countless honors for his work, including Emmy Awards and an honorary doctorate.  As a good Catholic boy, he has developed a special knowledge of the papacy and has done distinguished field reporting on each of the last three popes.

The confidence Mike Clark gained as a successful student and an honored professional never seemed to be self-directed. The empathy he experienced from others, including my mom, had to be passed along to others. It became his journalistic mission, to give voice to the voiceless.

He wrote: “As journalists, we have a responsibility to our audience to give them the facts and be straight shooters. On the air we look to tell stories to enlighten our audiences, and give voice to people and organizations who may not have had a platform. To listen to different perspectives.”

Even on social platforms, which can contain so much that is negative, intolerant and hurtful, Mike says he looks for stories that uplift people, that help promote unity rather than division, that show people working for the common good. “I try to post stories, sometimes personal, to let people know there is help out there, people out there who care.”

A brother from another mother

A week before Election Day, Mike Clark saw the parallels of care and concern between Biden’s support for young Brayden, and Shirley’s support for him, not just in first grade, but throughout his life:

"It made me so grateful that Shirley worked with me at such a young age. I think it was her goodness and kindness, how she leaned in close to me. She was easy to relate to because she was so talented, so encouraging, so funny. Shirley didn’t ignore my stuttering. She helped me tackle it head on. “C’mon say it again... that’s it! Say it again... you got it! Atta boy!!!”

That special relationship between a student and teacher can last a lifetime. For Mike Clark and Shirley Clark, it lasted for decades.  “Every time I saw your mom throughout my life, high school, college, trips home to visit my parents, she had that same smile on her face. She always told me she was proud of me. After coming home one year to speak at the Rosary Society Communion Breakfast, she introduced me and said, ‘You are MINE, Michael Clark... you’re one of MY sons.’ That’s how she made me feel.”

Who in your life has helped you overcome a problem?  Who have you helped to find their best selves?