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Wendell Johnson: A Multi-Media Web Page for a Multi-Faceted Man

Remarks of Nicholas Johnson

On the occasion of the dedication of the Wendell Johnson Memorial Web Page

Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic Auditorium, University of Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa

April 16, 1997

Wendell Johnson is more than a name on a building; more than a speech pathology pioneer, academic, scientist, researcher, writer and teacher.

He was all of that. But you know something of the hundreds of books, monographs and articles he wrote, and of his academic and research contributions to the field of speech pathology and audiology. And the Web page contains excerpts from or references to much of his work.

What your chair [of the University of Iowa Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology], Richard Hurtig, and I came to realize the other day in thinking about today's program is that there is no one currently on the staff here who knew Dad as a person. So what Richard and I thought might be most useful this afternoon is to introduce you to some facets of his life that may be less well known to you.

Dad was an athlete; in fact, an outstanding athlete in baseball, basketball, football, track, and boxing. Had he not crushed his hand in a printing press as a teen-ager he might very well have gone on to some prominence as an athlete.

He wrote poetry. He published short stories under a pen name.

He was a wonderful father, and grandfather. Here today is my daughter Julie, who has very vivid memories of "Grandpa Jack."

And speaking of Julie, and Dad's role as a grandfather, some of you may have noticed in my commentary on the Web page I refer to Dad's hobby interest in electronics and tape recorders. Well, among his tapes I found this 30-second excerpt of interaction between him and Julie. He is explaining to her the lights on the tape recorder.


What the audio tape does not reveal is that he was beginning this instruction when she was, after all, only one year old!

Also here today is my wife, Mary Vasey -- sitting there next to Ann [Ann Michael, Director, Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic]. Mary's father, Wayne, started the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. She visited with my folks in our home when Mary and I were attending the University High School together, and, as a speech path major herself at one point, actually heard Dad lecture. She is today on the national faculty of the Coalition of Essential Schools and the local faculty of Metro High School in Cedar Rapids.

My daughter-in-law, Val Johnson -- the mother of Dad's great grandson, Jordan, and great granddaughter, Alexis Lee -- is also here with Jordan and Lexie.

Dad had a great sense of humor, of play, of whimsy.

How many of you here today knew that Wendell Johnson was also a writer of limericks?

He returned from a trip to Hawaii with one about the hula dance that ends up concluding it is "an agonized notion in motion."

There was also a growing collection of lines his friends characterized as "Johnson's Laws." For example, he reflected upon the common expression that "we have only scratched the surface" with the observation: "What else is there to scratch but the surface?"

He and Mary's father used to entertain local civic organizations with their humorous banter.

What may have been less well known than his limericks, laws and jokes, however, was his fondness for parties and interest in music. What do you get when you put three general semanticists together? Here's a 60-second excerpt from a tape made at a party at our house in 1950 -- the house I moved back into 37 years after I left for college. Among those there that evening nearly a half-century ago were general semanticists Don Hayakawa (known to his U.S. Senate colleagues later in life as "Sam" Hayakawa), who is playing the ukelele, and neuro-surgeon Russ Meyer on the piano.


General semantics was more than just an academic study in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a popular movement, with local chapters all around the country. It appealed to celebrities and college students alike. Among the former was a famous band leader of the time, Artie Shaw. He was a student of general semantics, and was especially interested in People in Quandaries and Dad's other writing. So whenever he was in Iowa City to play a dance he would stop by the house. One thing led to another, and Dad ended up encouraging and helping Artie Shaw with his autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella.

Shaw, in turn, encouraged Dad to record his songs, and I believe sent a tape of them to Decca, a major record company at the time -- a destination from which, to the best of my knowledge, they never emerged.

But I'm not trying to make the case that Dad was a great musician. He was not. The song writing is simply more evidence that he could whistle while he worked.

Here is Dad singing one of those songs for his recording debut. He called it "Gray Hairs."


Today, April 16, 1997, is Dad's birthday. He died in 1965 at the age of 59. Had he lived he would have been 91 years old today.

If today's event were a conventional memorial service we'd be about 32 years late with it. But that's not what it is.

It's a celebration of life. A birthday party. A dedication. And a celebration that does not end at five o'clock this afternoon.

For what we are dedicating is an Internet Site, a Web page. It is, of course, a memory of him, a memorial to him. But it is much more, for at least two reasons.

It is more because it is a living, breathing, changing thing -- a party that never stops. Over the past six weeks this Web site has evolved and changed almost daily -- sometimes more than once a day. It will continue to change as you, and others interested in speech pathology and audiology, make suggestions for additions and changes, whether new pages to add or simply links to computers' pages elsewhere out there in the new world we call cyberspace.

Secondly, it is also more because it is a useful tool, a research source, a set of links to publications and data -- both at this Web site and elsewhere throughout the world -- that today's students and practitioners of speech pathology and general semantics can use, today, in their study and research.

In doing the work this has represented I have thought of it in many ways. But certainly one of those ways is as a gift to you, the University of Iowa Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, and the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic. When this building was dedicated, Mother paid for the painting of Dad that Cloy Kent created and that hangs in your lobby. I am relatively confident that the gift of love I present to you today has involved at least as many person-hours as Cloy Kent put into that painting.

The Wendell Johnson Memorial Web Page will not adorn your lobby. But it can be seen by any of the 50 million or more people on Planet Earth who have computer screens and connections to the World Wide Web on the Internet. It is yet one more way that those of you who carry this great Iowa tradition into the Twenty-first Century can have your accomplishments more widely recognized throughout the world.

As you know, the reason the Web is called a Web is because it makes possible the inter-connection of any documents on the Internet that the authors choose to include. Through the use of what are called "links" one can mouse-click one's way from document to document on computers around the world. Although it is often possible to know where those computers are located geographically, it is neither necessary nor relevant to know. The practical effect of the Web, when you are connected to the Internet, is as if someone were to have taken the 15 billion or so documents and put them all on your hard drive for your immediate and easy access.

So, for example, I have links from my commercial Internet Site to the Web page of ASHA (the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) -- and, of course, to your own departmental Web page.

But it is also possible to have links to documents located on the computer where the Web page is stored.

For example, there is a link from the Web page to a page for Dad's first book, Because I Stutter. From the table of contents at the bottom of that page there are, in turn, links to each of the chapters in that book. In other words, the Web Site provides a way to get the entire book, the full text of a book that has long been out of print, has disappeared from many libraries, and is virtually impossible to find.

The same is true for the links to excerpts from People in Quandaries, Your Most Enchanted Listener, Stuttering and What You Can Do About It, and so forth.

You have been, or will be, provided a printed version of the Web page. But that page is the least of this Internet site. The Web page is little more than an annotated Table of Contents to the Web site. It's where the links are. The real content -- the hundreds of pages which have not been printed out for you -- is elsewhere, a mouse-click away.

As you know, the material one can put on the Web is not limited to text. You can upload photographs and drawings, audio files, full-motion video clips, animation, and so forth. I have not, yet, done much of this.

There is, however, one audio clip of Dad's voice, taken from a 1956 recording of one of his course lectures in general semantics. At that time, the course was one of the most popular on campus. So popular was it, in fact, that it was broadcast over WSUI.

In the course of explaining what general semanticists call "levels of abstraction" -- the differences in the language we use for descriptions of observable phenomena compared with our statements of generalization -- he lectured about the language we use to explain the things we don't understand. This is what we would call hypotheses, theories -- or "faith."

Here is how he put it that day. Give a listen:


I do hope you take the time to read through the printed version of the page to get a sense of what's there.

I've not even begun to describe for you the access to bibliographies, other writing, lists of doctoral candidates at Iowa, essays by former students, such as Joe Stewart and your own Dean Williams.* That's for you to discover the next time you're sitting at a computer with Web access. The address is in the upper right corner of the first printed page:

It's my gift to you -- and to Dad.

Happy Birthday!


One of the more delightful presentations at the dedication ceremony the afternoon of April 16, 1997, was the reading, by Toni Cilek, of a letter from Dad to Dean Williams. Ms. Cilek is the Clinical Supervisor in the area of stuttering, and was trained by Dean Williams.

Dean Williams was a student of Dad's, and earned his Ph.D. at Iowa in 1952. He was later a colleague, and remained a member of the faculty in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology there until his death. Indeed, it is his "Remembering Wendell Johnson" that is one of the three opening introductory pieces to which there are links from the Web page.

What is less well known is that Dean Williams was, as a young boy, one of the stutterers with whom Dad worked in the "speech clinic" during the 1930s.

The letter is endearing for a number of perfectly obvious reasons, but it is also one small bit of evidence of another facet of Dad's life and work that is otherwise not represented on the Web page: he carried on an enormous burden -- or blessing, depending on one's point of view -- of correspondence. I recall sitting in his office as a young boy, waiting to go home, watching him talk into a very large "Ediphone" (I believe it was called) with wax cylinders -- one of the first "dictaphone" machines (and a precursor to his subsequent interest in tape recorders).

As an indication of the breadth of that correspondence, here is what he wrote the "little boy" named Dean Williams in 1935.

The letter also illustrates the care and creativity in phrase-turning he brought to all his writing, even, in this case, a simple Christmas thank you letter.

Of course, the most heart-warming aspect of the letter involves its discovery. After Dean Williams' death, it was necessary to clean out his office and desk. Both bore the appearance that some would characterize as "clutter" and others would see as the product of a productive life. The task fell to Toni Cilek. But the one document that was easy for her to find was this letter. Dean Williams had taken it from office to office, as he had moved, and kept it clearly visible in the center of his desk drawer for a half-century.

(Although I cannot know, my guess is that the chickens to which the letter refers may well have been Dean Williams' parents notion of a form of payment for clinic services, as that was a not uncommon currency used by farmers in compensating doctors and other professionals -- especially during the Depression of the 1930s. On the other hand, I may be completely wrong. This may have been, as Dad characterizes it, nothing but a nice Christmas present from appreciative parents; the Clinic may not have charged for services at all at that time, or if it did charge the Williams family may have already paid whatever they owed in full.)

Be that as it may, the letter, typed on plain paper by an old mechanical typewriter, reads as follows:

Speech Clinic

Iowa City, Iowa

January 11, 1935

Dear Dean:

Vacation came and hurried away before I had really had time to make its acquaintance, and now I find that work is getting very thick with me, very familiar with me; in fact, work is making a pest of itself. But this morning I came to the clinic very early and at last I am getting around to telling you that your Christmas present was unusually and completely fine. I am almost certain that you can hardly know just how fine it was. When you get to be Senator or Governor or President of the Farm Bureau, you will find out what it is that makes a fellow want to work hard -- it is chickens from a fellow like you at Christmas time. I want to thank you very, very much. I wish you a really happy New Year, and I hope that we at the clinic can help to make it one for you.

Yours very sincerely,

/signed Wendell Johnson/

Wendell Johnson

[The envelope bears the three-cent stamp necessary for first class postage at the time, and is addressed to Dean Williams "c/o Mr. Elmer Williams, Rural Route #3, Iowa City, Iowa."]

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