Like so many others who have found their way to the Gow School over the past 75 years, Joseph Taormina and John Leary had hit a dead end in public schools -- Taormina in Newport Beach, Calif., and Leary in Austin, Texas. Intelligent, but slow learners, both faced uncertain futures.
Five years later, these 17-year-old Gow juniors say the nation's oldest college preparatory school for dyslexic boys has turned them around.
Leary is an honor student who has been class valedictorian in all three of his years at Gow. He is already looking ahead -- he has yet to choose a college -- to graduate courses in engineering at the University of Texas.
Taormina, who has raised his grade average from D to B-plus, has set his sights on Long Beach State College and a career as a small-business consultant.
But then, amazing success stories are routine on the South Wales campus, where 500 alumni, family members and friends of the school will gather this evening for the annual Founder's Day dinner, kicking off a three-day 75th-anniversary celebration.
No one is more amazed than Benjamin C. Bradlee, the former Washington Post executive editor, whose son Quinn is a Gow senior.
After struggling all his life to comprehend the written word, Quinn, 19, found his groove at Gow, said Bradlee, who will deliver the fourth lecture in a series bearing his name before onight's sold-out dinner.
"Quinn is now reading well and reading for pleasure. That is incredible," said Bradlee, whose wife is former Post reporter Sally Quinn.
Such results are no surprise to Gow teachers, who use a time-tested technique called reconstructive language and rigorous individual instruction to help youngsters overcome dyslexia and similar learning problems.
Reconstructive language was developed by Peter Gow Jr., who as a teacher at Nichols and Park schools early in the last century had been puzzled by the poor reading skills of otherwise bright and articulate boys.
In 1922, Gow opened a rustic summer camp for these children on a farm his family owned 30 miles south of Buffalo. Students slept in tents on what is now a campus ski hill and went to class outdoors.
Four years later, armed with research by Iowa neurologist Samuel T. Orton that linked reading disabilities to gaps in the brain's word-processing circuits, Gow moved his wife and children to the Emery Road farm and started his school in a onetime horse barn.
Working with Orton's findings, he created lists, guide words and the other elements of reconstructive language, a phonics-based system that, by getting students to concentrate on words and their meaning, strengthens the brain's connectors.
"The curriculum is traditional. The teaching style is the difference," said Bekah Atkinson, assistant admissions director.
Gow students in grades 9 through 12 must adapt to a "very intense environment," she added. They attend classes six days a week, seldom with more than three or four other boys per room, and except for participation in sports, which is mandatory, spend most of the remaining time in their dormitories.
They are rewarded with five-day or two-week breaks after each four-week block of instruction and with frequent group trips.
The only boarding school in the state west of the Hudson River, Gow has a 100 percent college-acceptance rate for its graduates. Many have gone on to Ivy League or other prestigious colleges and universities.
Enrollment stands at 146 and is unlikely to increase, because more students would create a need for more faculty and facilities -- and could nullify the magic Gow is able to work in an intimate environment, said Gayle Hutton, development director. Headmaster William Patterson "wants to sort of keep what we have now," she said.
A thrust of the $16.2 million "Lives in the Making" capital campaign, which has raised $10.2 million, will be to make sending a son to Gow easier for parents who must struggle to pay the $32,000 annual tuition, Hutton said.
Bradlee's lecture at 6 p.m. in the Thompson Gymnasium will be free and open to the public.
The celebration will continue Friday and Saturday, ending with a a dinner and dance at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Adam's Mark Hotel.