Russ Hicks of Plano displays a Toastmaster award he won
despite being a lifelong stutterer.
Your palms are sweating. The butterflies in your stomach are stampeding. Your chest grows tight.
All eyes are on you as the crowd grows silent.
Not enough stress? OK, imagine you're a finalist in a Toastmaster competition. Then imagine you're a lifelong stutterer.
"There were 400 high-level Toastmasters in the audience," said Russ Hicks, "and it was like a corporal appearing in front of the generals."
This corporal proved his mettle, though.
"Everything came together, and adrenaline kicked in like it's supposed to," Mr. Hicks said. "I thought, 'this is going to be more fun than I've ever had,' and I have never felt more alive."
"Mr. Hicks, 56, of Plano, a computer systems consultant at Texas Instruments, doesn't let his speech impediment get in the way. He won first place in the Toastmasters Region 3 humorous speech contest in June, retelling an anecdote from his childhood in which a cousin nearly killed him by coercing the younger and more naive Mr. Hicks to imitate a stunt from a Roy Rogers movie.
"I kept on winning these contests - club, area, division, district," Mr. Hicks said. "I thought district was the last, and I could not believe that... [I went on] to regional. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"
Grace Tyler, a fellow Toastmaster and senior program analyst at TI, can appreciate what Mr. Hicks went through to win the award. "It's an outstanding achievement, and not just for people who have a speech problem," Ms. Tyler said. "It's very, very difficult to get to that [district] level."
For many stutterers, simple things such as using the telephone or even saying their names can be torture. Mr. Hicks, who struggles to get out many words, charges ahead with an outgoing personality, a generous sense of humor and knowledge that at his age he likely will always stutter. And he accepts that.
The Toastmasters have accepted him as well. Pat Gallagher of Dallas, District Governor for the Toastmasters, said winning the regional award is "quite a feat" for any Toastmaster, regardless of a speech impediment.
"That night he did a wonderful job, a very good presentation," Ms. Gallagher said. "They weren't aware of his [stuttering] at the regionals."
Mr. Hicks took a leap of faith when he joined the Toastmasters, tackling fears that had a strong hold on him. One person's influence made the difference.
As a member and past president of the Dallas chapter of the National Stuttering Project, Mr. Hicks attended the group's national convention in San Francisco in 1986. There he met a man who left and indelible impression on him.
Jim Black, a smoke jumper from California and fellow stutterer, "was a cross between Norman Vincent Peale and Tarzan; he was larger than life," Mr. Hicks recalled. "He had such a positive attitude about everything.
"He said [you had] to do a first every day, and actively seek out anything you're afraid to do and do it," he said. "If you can face something you fear and do it anyway, the feelings you'll have are phenomenal."
After lunch one day, Mr. Black persuaded another stutterer to stand on a chair and in a restaurant and make a speech. She balked, and he persisted by saying, "You have five minutes." The minutes ticked on, and finally the woman relented. As Mr. Hicks recalls, it wasn't much of a speech, but the fact that she did it impressed him.
Shortly after Mr. Hicks returned from the convention, he was devastated to hear that Mr. Black had been killed in an auto accident.
A year later got an e-mail at work about an upcoming Toastmasters meeting. He thought, "There's no way I could do this, I stutter." Then he heard a voice in the hallway say, "You've got five minutes." Something clicked, and though Mr. Hicks didn't see anyone there, he believed it must be fate. He joined the group right then and has not looked back.
Now Mr. Hicks not only participates in Toastmaster meetings, he heads up a club at Callier Center, where the National Stuttering Project chapter meets monthly. His achievements inspired chapter members.
Joseph Diaz of Dallas, a stutterer and current chapter president, was encouraged by Mr. Hicks to join the Toastmasters and now has is Competent Toastmaster designation, given after 10 speeches. He said the club frequently turns to Mr. Hicks, now a seasoned Toastmaster, for advice on speaking procedure.
In 1989, Mr. Hicks was featured in a KERA-TV (Channel 13) "News Addition" segment on medical breakthroughs in stuttering, and it included footage of him speaking at a Toastmasters meeting. The segment was also shown on the "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour" the same year.
"Apparently I'm some kind of inspiration to people, and I
don't shirk from that," Mr. Hicks said. "I'm not anyone
special, but I've done some things that show people that if I
can do it, anyone can."