March 26, 2011
Man born with stutter defies gravity, expectations
Kathryn Gregory
Lawrence Pierce
Lewisburg resident Gary Michael McComas overcame his childhood stutter and got his pilot's license in 2007. Since then he has more than 250 hours of flight time in his friend's two-seater Cessna 152.

LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- Gary Michael McComas grew up poor, like many children in the West Virginia hills. But one very distinct thing -- an intense childhood stutter -- set him apart.

Growing up on his grandparent's tobacco farm in Lincoln County, "we didn't have [an indoor] bathroom until I was 14," he said.

Some rural Appalachians have low expectations of what their kids can accomplish, McComas said. In his case, with a debilitating stutter that prevented him from speaking in class or ordering in a restaurant, there wasn't much hope.

"I had almost negative expectations," he said.

People assumed he would get a minimum-wage job that required little, if any, social interaction, with no real advancement opportunities. 

But somewhere along the way, "I decided that something in me wanted more and I knew that I could do more and be more and have more."

Now, three college degrees, two start-up companies and a pilot's license later, he can say things didn't really turn out how people expected.

"Not quite," he said with a laugh.

Life with a stutter

McComas, 51, said growing up with a stutter was a struggle.

"Trying to ask a girl out on a date when you stutter, that is hilarious," he said.

When he left the safety of his small town to pursue a degree at Marshall University, McComas had a name changing experience.

"I had a chemistry teacher that had us fill out a form that asked for first name, middle initial," he said. Up to that point, McComas had gone by his middle name, Michael. Afraid to make a spectacle of himself by pointing out he preferred not to go by his first name, he wrote Gary M.

It stuck. Years later, McComas goes by both names, a direct result of his childhood stammer. "I was painfully shy, and on top of that I stuttered, so I couldn't, wouldn't [tell anybody] different."

Now, the Lewisburg resident is ready to share his story. And it stems from an unlikely place. McComas got the idea after watching "The King's Speech" win Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards.

"For the first time, it's kind of cool to have a stutter," he said with a smile.

The movie, which was written by a man who stutters, shows numerous scenes where King George VI, played by Colin Firth, tries to master his stammer.

McComas was subjected to many of the same therapies, including one where he placed an entire handful of marbles in his mouth in an attempt to correct his stutter.

"Just like everyone else, I almost choked to death on them."

After attending several therapies in the 1960s that were "very ineffective," McComas tried something else in his late 20s.

"I tried this other therapy that involved putting a rubber tube in your year and talking and measuring the amount of air that was coming out," he said. One of the main things common to stutterers is holding their breath while they speak.

It wasn't until McComas was 36 that he found a therapy that would finally alter his speech.

He spent 21 days at the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va. The school works to retrain mouth and throat muscles so people can speak without stammering.

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