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Hi-tech speaking

Professor assists deaf children's speech with computer imaging

PROVO, Utah — Speaking comes naturally to most people. The easy flow of communication connects us with humanity. But those who struggle to get the words out often need expert help, and Sam Fletcher has devoted much of his life to giving it.

But more than just treating patients in a clinic, Brother Fletcher's inventive mind has harnessed science and technology to help therapy work better. Having years ago taught his children that "being a genius is not how smart you are, but how hard you work," Brother Fletcher has proven the truth of his words through a lifetime of service.

He officially retired from the University of Alabama in 1991, having spent 23 years in Birmingham as a professor of speech pathology. Today at 77, he remains active as a scholar and mentor at Brigham Young University.

Young Sam Fletcher came from a Latter-day Saint background, but his parents were not active in their ward. Throughout his childhood in Preston, Idaho, he often wondered about the Church that so many of his school friends attended. At 9 years of age he and his friend, Winston, approached the local bishop about joining. With their parents' consent, the two pedaled their bikes alone across town to be baptized. Brother Fletcher remembers being frustrated as a teenager with the antics of the other youth and would drift away for a time, but then return again to the Church because he missed it.

Perhaps because of his own experience as a young man, he has succeeded in helping many others return to full Church activity.

After Brother Fletcher earned his doctorate, UCLA and Stanford offered him prestigious faculty positions. However, his wife Josephine persuaded him that her hometown would be the best place to settle, and so they moved to Logan. There, at Utah State University, Brother Fletcher built up the speech pathology department with his characteristic energy and vision. His son, Jed, remembers his father being busy, but making time for family camping trips in Logan Canyon.

Brother Fletcher's career was moving forward impressively, and he and his wife devoted themselves to raising their five young children. But 1966 brought them tragedy when Josephine lost her life in a car crash. As time passed and Brother Fletcher mourned the loss of his wife, he was wise enough to know that his children needed a new mother. The following year, he married Barbara Johns, who had been introduced to him by a former student.

After six productive years at Utah State, Brother Fletcher moved his family to New Mexico where a new medical center offered him the resources to carry on with his speech technology research.

Traditional speech therapy depended on the therapist listening to the patterns of sound errors and guiding the learner to clearer speech. But Brother Fletcher's mind overflowed with ideas for applying science and electronics to make therapy more effective.

Hearing a few years later about an interesting new opportunity in Alabama, he moved to Birmingham, where he served as president of the Birmingham Alabama Stake, and worked with other pioneering researchers in bioengineering and dentistry. The breakthrough for therapy came when Brother Fletcher invented the "palatometer" to show in real time on a computer screen the changing patterns the tongue made on the palate. Surely, he reasoned, if a deaf child could see how to shape the tongue, then learning to speak would be easier than the trial-and-error attempts of the past.

Susie Lundberg, one of his daughters, remembers working alongside her father to build the early palatometers. "Dad never worried about making money," she said, "but about helping people through his work."

Brother Fletcher's dedication yielded some impressive results. He recalls how one young woman who was born deaf had struggled for years to learn to talk. Her grandfather had longed to speak with her directly, but their conversation always relied on sign language interpretation by the girl's mother. After a few weeks of treatment with the palatometer, she had learned to say more than she had through years of traditional therapy. When her grandfather came to see her at the end of her stay, the stern executive was moved to tears when she looked him in the eye and spoke to him. "In 17 years, that's the first face-to-face conversation I've had with my granddaughter," the man said.

A year after returning from a service mission to Indonesia, the Fletchers moved to Springville — where he serves as mission leader of the Springville 7th Ward, Springville Utah Stake — and Brother Fletcher was appointed as an adjunct research professor at BYU, where his work continues to this day. Ever the inventor, he shows no signs of slowing down. Jed Fletcher says his father believes in being "anxiously engaged in a good cause," and keeps far busier than most men his age.

The focus of Brother Fletcher's current efforts is on refining the palatometer. With improved electronic circuitry and a simpler process to construct, he hopes to make the tool available to many more therapists and their clients.

"If we can help just one more person to speak who couldn't before, then it's been worth the effort," he says.

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