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Famed voice conquered stuttering via literacy

The child growing up in a small town in Michigan thought he would never be able to talk or read out loud.

His battle with stuttering often got the best of him and the laughter from other kids left him feeling embarrassed and hurt.

"It was so embarrassing [that] I gave up talking altogether," the boy -- now a man -- said during a speech Saturday morning at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library as part of the Buffalo Book Fair 2007.

"I thought 'I can live with this, being a mute. You don't have many arguments with other people,' " he joked.

The little boy overcame the impediment and grew up to become actor James Earl Jones, one of the most recognizable voices in the world. He is the commanding voice behind Darth Vader from the "Star Wars" movies, King Mufasa from "The Lion King" and the spokesman for Verizon.

The actor recounted the story of his childhood to illustrate his bond with literacy and why he appreciates the written word so much.

"Literacy is about celebrating reading, writing, listening and history," Jones said.

Turning points came for him when a family crisis forced him to call for help and a professor's challenge put him under a spotlight in front of the whole class.

When a relative got hurt on the family farm, Jones had to snowshoe through 4 feet of snow to get to a telephone to summon a doctor, he said.

Later, when he was a 14-year-old student, a teacher challenged the authenticity of a poem he had written because the prose was so good.

The teacher dared Jones to come to the front of the class and recite the poem to prove he had written it.

"To protect my honor, I did it. Suddenly, the words flowed out without any stuttering at all when I read my own work," Jones said to a packed house. "Without that mentor, I didn't know what would have happened in my life. I certainly wouldn't be up here."

What happened is that Jones grew up to become an actor of stage and screen, winning Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe awards along the way. To this day, the 66-year-old actor still struggles with the problem of stuttering, he said. But one would never know.

"His voice in person sounds like it does in the movies, really deep and moving," said Sacheen Garrison, who was visiting from Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, Oyauma, and their three children.

Following the speech in the library's auditorium, Jones moved to the Children's Library on the second floor to read from "The Lion King" to about 50 youngsters, including the Garrisons' 5-year-old daughter, Mya.

"I liked it," Mya said. "Simba is my favorite."

"I really liked the fact that he talked about reading because reading is fundamental to everything," said Danielle Singletary, who brought her son Dorian Williams to the book fair event.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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