It was the Fall semester of my junior year at New Mexico State University, and I was enrolled in a required class that I had been dreading having to take: Speech 101, Public Speaking. For many 20-year-olds it was a piece of cake–you attended the lectures, followed a prescribed formula, made a few carefully outlined speeches, collected your A or B, and that was that. The content certainly wasn’t challenging and the prof, Dr. Garrett, had a reputation around campus as an exceptionally easy grader. Still, it was not at all clear to me why a psych major had to know how to speak in public.
At that stage of my life I was a seething cauldron of insecurities–my anxiety was reaching critical mass–self-esteem and confidence below zero. I was almost 21 and I had never even had a date. I couldn’t risk the almost certain rejection–and then there was the problem of opening the mouth and making coherent words come out, and so the thought of standing in front of a group of peers and almost certainly looking like a fool was a terror beyond daunting. I was the quintessential shy, quiet guy. Today, I know that many have a fear of public speaking–on fear inventories ranking just ahead of poisonous snakes–but then I thought maybe I was just of the one percent that had this problem.
The public speaking class met in the early afternoon, and at the first session I thought things looked fairly promising. It was a small section; only about 15 were enrolled and I knew some from previous classes. They were not a threatening bunch at all, and I gathered from some of the conversation as we waited for Dr. Garrett that at least a few others were nervous too.
Dr. Garrett was a wizened homunculus of a man–a Yoda architype–short, balding and deeply tanned. He had thick forearms with both wrists covered in Indian jewelry. He had a stunning silver and turquoise watch band on one wrist and a silver bowgard on the other. However, his most defining feature was a very full, greying beard. This was in an era and on a campus when full beards were still fairly rare. When he wore a tie it was a western string tie with a silver or turquoise clasp at the throat.
In that first session he did his best to relax the class. His manner was slow and engaging. A gigantic coffee mug was his ubiquitous accessory–and from time to time he would take a drag on it. I figured out many years later that he understood that quite a few of us had anxiety about public speaking and he was deliberately relaxing us in an almost hypnodynamic fashion.
Anyway, I got thru the term with a B, and maybe I earned it. I was generally thrilled with any grade better than a C. The five or six times I had to get up front and speak without notes were terrifying. I didn’t gain much confidence over the course of the semester, nevertheless Dr. G’s critiques of my speeches were while honest, yet always gentle and encouraging. The most important thing I learned was that Ed Garrett cared about students as people, and in that era and at that school, that seemed unusual and impressed me tremendously. Most NMSU faculty seemed to take a savage pride in stating that fewer than 25% who entered as freshmen would ever graduate. Quite a few faculty were pissed off at Dr. G because he rarely gave a grade lower than a C, but he understood that 19 and 20-year-olds needed to be affirmed more that they needed to be rated on their academic performance.
I took two more undergraduate courses as electives from Dr. Garrett: General Semantics and Speech Correction. Both classes were mind-expanding and relatively easy A’s. As a result I established a rapport with him, and he apparently got some sense of my latent abilities as well. What I did not realize when I signed up for those classes was that Dr. G, and NMSU’s Speech and Hearing Center had applied for and received a massive grant to study the correction of functional misarticulations using teaching machines–essentially a small computer hooked up to a tape recorder. The research for this grant’s proposal had won the top award at the previous year’s ASHA convention. Shortly before I graduated in the Spring of ’64, Dr. G asked if I’d like to apply for a job as a Graduate Research Assistant under the grant–and what a break for me. The grant had several 20-hr a week research assistant positions and I was given one of them. Dr. G believed my experience in verbal learning and operant conditioning would be helpful in writing the programs.
The research assistant position gave me an income for the two years while I worked on my masters in Experimental Psych. It was also the first real-world boost to my less than zero sense of self-worth; I was somebody; I had a title; I had a role; I had an office–only big people had those things, not screw-up adolescents like me. I was allowed one elective in the masters psych program and so I took another Dr. G class: Speech Pathology, and I seriously began considering changing my major to Speech and Audiology. Had I done that my life likely would have played out in quite a different fashion–perhaps a more satisfying and lucrative fashion–but in retrospect I can see that’s not what the Lord had in mind for me.
Working at the Speech and Hearing Center was a mind-expanding experience. Dr. G’s right hand man was Kay Rigg, a former rocket scientist at White Sands who had a degree in Electrical Engineering. He was a computer whiz and carried the title “Systems Analyst” before pretty much anyone else on the planet had knew what that meant. Kay had grown up in Los Alamos and his boyhood chums were the sons of some of the world’s most brilliant men–the men who built “The Bomb.” Kay had a broad synergistic intellect and he had completed most of the classwork toward an M.A. in Modern European History. He is easily one of the two or three brightest people I have ever known. He was also a classical guitarist–yet, for all his brilliance and talent, a hard-core atheist. Kay’s assistants were two techies: Jim Boehme, a cowboy biker from San Antonio working on an electrical engineering masters, and another fellow with a German name, Joe Diehl, who was working on a doctorate in Physics. The latter was a quiet sort who attended the same little Lutheran church that my sunday school teacher mother drug me to each week.
At that stage of my life I was an agnostic. I only went to church to placate my mother, and I was totally disinterested in what was being offered at Bethlehem Lutheran, and sadly, I let her know that fact. I was more attracted to Kay’s blend of stoic existential atheism than Joe’s quiet faith. Still, the fact that a PhD candidate in physics believed in God impressed me.
The two techies did the bench-work wiring the circuits, and Kay did the programming of the mini-computers that controlled the tape recorders. I wrote the programmed instruction manuals that the teachers would use in working with the kids. I’ve always enjoyed being around people who know more about things than I know–things about how the real world works, and the daily interactions with Dr. G, Kay and the six or seven others that comprised the Center was an ongoing trek of discovery. And what we were doing was important, seminal work. When the teaching machine and the results of our research was presented at the ASHA convention in 1968, it was received as groundbreaking in terms of technique and technology. But by then I had moved on to a career in mental health in the state of Illinois. However, my work at the Center and my affiliation with Dr. Garrett had been the high note in a rather miserable time in my life.
I returned to New Mexico for a visit in October, 1970. In most ways I was a very different person than the shy, exceedingly insecure young man who’d left there three years prior. Dr. G asked if I would speak to the Center’s graduate students about my work in community mental health. I agreed. He said they would pay me a small honorarium. I was thrilled. In retrospect, I don’t think he was so interested in the grad students learning about community mental health as he was in giving me another, “See you can do it” pat on the shoulder. Here I was standing in front of a group of 15 strangers giving a public speech. I felt important; I felt like somebody.
After 1970, I lost track of Dr. G for over three decades–but as time passed, and especially after I became a Jesus-follower, Dr. G and his kindness would pop into my thoughts from time to time. I remembered reading in the alumni magazine that he’d retired and that they named the new Speech and Hearing Center after him, and then about eight or nine years ago on a whim I decided to call him. I got his home number from information, and when he answered, tho in his upper-80s, his voice still sounded the same. He clearly remembered me and we talked for a dozen minutes about people and times long past. Before our phone call ended I thanked him for the role he’d played in my life. He had seen something in me and affirmed me at a time when I didn’t think anything very positive about myself and when my future seemed murky at best.
This past week I returned to New Mexico for the first time in 42 years. I would have loved to have visited a bit with Ed Garrett, but I recalled reading in the alumni bulletin that he had passed away. Anyway, I drove around the campus, and tho much had changed, parts of it still looked the same. I found Kent Hall that had housed the Speech and Hearing Center and stood outside the door of my old office. It was a saturday and the campus was quiet and everything was locked up. However, while driving about I saw the new Speech and Hearing Center, and I had my pic taken by my friend Stan outside the big, new building by the Edgar R. Garrett marquee.
In 2005, I published a book: The Unwelcome Blessing. At the beginning of the book I acknowledge a couple dozen folks who have been friends and mentors–people who have taught me, befriended me or given me a boost in some fashion. Quite intentionally, the first name on that list is Edgar Garrett, PhD.
Dr. G was a native of New Mexico from Silver City. I often wondered if he was related to the Pat Garrett of the Billy-the-Kid saga. He had the slight drawl and the engaging friendliness of authentic old-Westerners. I don’t know a lot about his story but I know he had several kids and a wheelchair bound wife to whom he was devoted. He was on staff at NMSU off and on since 1948–leaving just for a couple of years to complete his PhD. I don’t know if he went to church. I don’t know what he believed about life’s big questions. I never asked and he never talked about it, but I know he was always giving me affirmations, and he was ever kind and patient with my immaturity and callow attitude. I know that he cared about the downtrodden, about broken things–kids who stuttered, kids with cerebral palsy and cleft palates, people who were made fun of.
We know the Lord thru Scripture, thru His Spirit living within us and from the people He places around us–I don’t know if Ed Garrett was a Christian, but he was the Jesus in my life.