KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — For the first few decades of his life, Thad Cox Sr. had a serious stuttering problem.
On the other hand, the retired Knoxville bank chairman and civic volunteer went through life still being able to succeed in countless areas with little hesitation.
The connection between these two and his stories of trying to overcome both his speaking struggles and ridicule over the first two decades of his life are told in a new young reader’s book.
Called “Bullyblossom: A Tale of Overcoming Bullies and Embracing Stuttering To Live a Life of Achievement” and co-written with University of Tennessee clinical associate professor Tricia Hedinger, the book is part memoir and part practical advice.
Also featuring illustrations from former longtime News Sentinel cartoonist Charlie Daniel, who admitted to overcoming his own speech impediment as a child, it presents both the tough life lessons Cox learned and tips for more easily handling such situations today.
“It’s a serious comic book for kids 12-20, kids who are handicapped or stutter or are being bullied,” said Cox. “It’s for them, their parents or special education teachers.”
Hedinger, who teaches and works in the UT Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, said the two had met several years ago when she was on the news talking about a stuttering support group, and he contacted her. He later spoke to the group, and about two years ago they came up with the idea for the book.
“He provided the story of his life and together we wrote the stories,” she said. “I provided the clinical comments about stuttering and suggestions for handling bullying and the comments about how struggling with stuttering can lead to resilience and building a life of achievement.”
Cox originally envisioned a story about his entire life, but with editorial assistance from Brooks Clark of the UT Alumni Communications office, the self-published book was formatted into one that covered his younger years.
Cox, now 83, said he had stuttered from his very young years. His older brother, Johnny, who was two years his senior, would protect him, but when he moved on to another school, Thad had to fend for himself.
He recalled attending the old St. Mary’s School by Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and being bullied. But having learned boxing, he challenged the instigator to a boxing match with a referee where the encounter would be fair, and he won.
“Every battle I fought and won, it built confidence,” he said.
He went on to boarding school at McCallie in Chattanooga and participated in sports like tennis, wrestling and the shot put in track, where he did not have to talk to be successful.
He slowly continued to gain confidence and went to UT and was able to pledge Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, where his brother was a member. Despite still struggling with talking, he made up for it by working and volunteering for jobs, and his fraternity brothers found inspiration in his perspiration.
“I did a lot of things and was rewarded by the members as the president,” he said of the accomplishment, adding that he met his wife, Peggy, while in college.
He used that same work ethic after college, admittedly volunteering for some really mundane committees so he could lead by action rather than words. He went on to become a bank president in his early 30s and eventually became chairman of Third National Bank, which became part of SunTrust (now Truist). He and his family also own several businesses, including Ashe’s Wines and Spirits in Bearden.
Stuttering eventually became only a minor obstacle in his life by about age 40, he said, and today he might stutter only once or twice briefly during a detailed conversation with someone.
“If you put your mind to it, and you have desire and discipline, you can accomplish anything,” he said in offering life advice.
The book, which the authors hope results in some interest from school systems around the country, is designed to be helpful to others suffering with the problem.
“About 1 percent of the population stutters, and many kids who stutter will never meet another kid who stutters,” said Hedinger, who got into her line of work due to a passion for helping people, particularly children. “This book lets people know they are not alone.”
Hedinger said anyone interested in therapy or support groups regarding stuttering or other speech issues can email her at email@example.com.