Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation, mourned the loss of country music legend and longtime Foundation spokesperson Mel Tillis following news of his passing at age 85 on Sunday, November 19.
“For decades, Mel Tillis has been one of the world’s most famous people who stutter. Within the stuttering community he will be remembered as a friend who has lent his name and precious time to help other people who struggle with speaking fluently,” said Fraser.
“A longtime supporter of the Stuttering Foundation who served as the 1998 spokesman and its honorary chairman, Tillis’ active presence in the stuttering community gave hope to so many. Most importantly, he was one of the first to openly talk about his stuttering and urge others to do so.”
“Mel starred in a radio public service announcement for us which could be heard across the country. Everyone knew Mel stuttered and that he was wildly successful—he was truly an inspiration to the entire stuttering community.”
Tillis came from a family in which both his father and his brother struggled with stuttering at various points in their lives. Born August 8, 1932 in Pahokee, Florida, Tillis had said through the years that his stuttering started at age four after falling ill to malaria. He only became aware that he spoke differently when he went to school and other kids told him he stuttered. Tillis came home and asked his mother if he stuttered and she said, “Yes you do and that is OK.”
In his 1984 autobiography Stutterin’ Boy: The Autobiography of Mel Tillis, America’s Beloved Star of Country Music, he wrote of the appearance of his stuttering, “…doctors say malaria always leaves you with something. Now I stuttered very badly, and I didn’t even know it. Maybe my folks didn’t want to hurt my feelings. It could be they thought I’d grow out of it.”
In elementary school, he was unable to answer questions in class and participate in discussions, but his teacher was aware that he could sing without stuttering. The teacher had him sing to the class every day, and later started to bring him to other classrooms in the school where he would sing to students in other grades. He became the singing star of his school.
In high school while studying ancient Greece, he read about Demosthenes putting pebbles in his mouth to cure his stuttering and help him become a gifted orator. Tillis reportedly tried this “home remedy” with no success.
As both a high school student and an adult, he underwent speech therapy. After achieving stardom and earning the unofficial title as the most famous person who stutters in the United States, Tillis would appear on national talk shows such as The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show with noted speech-language pathologists Dr. Joseph Sheehan and Dr. Raymond Van Deusan to educate audiences about stuttering, its cause and treatment.
During his tenure as the spokesman of the Stuttering Foundation, the country music legend loved hearing from the parents of children who stutter, as well as the children themselves, and always managed a response despite his demanding schedule. In public, he cited his stuttering as a gift, and did not mince words in debunking the false image that people who stutter are not as smart as the rest of the population. Over the years he frequently told fellow people who stutter to “stand up and be a light for the cause.”
For more information on Mel Tillis, visit www.StutteringHelp.org.