Historicist: The Dennison School of Speech Correction
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Historicist: The Dennison School of Speech Correction

How a future mayor overcame a stammering problem and helped others with speech issues.

Left to right: James C. McRuer, William Dennison (seated), and Mayor Nathan Phillips, swearing in William Dennison as city controller in 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1276.

STAMMERING Corrected. Booklet gives full information. Write: William Dennison, 543-A Jarvis St., Toronto, Ont.

Advertisement, 1949

When William Dennison announced his run for mayor in 1966, the Globe and Mail described the veteran city councillor as “a funny kind of socialist, a former professional heckler, fender inspector and beekeeper, a man who could never see the need for both a prayer and the national anthem at the same meeting, and a bad skater.” He had also planted thousands of trees at his Caledon farm, advocated for birth control, and promoted a smoking ban at council meetings. But his proudest achievement was the assistance he provided to students at his Dennison School of Speech Correction to overcome their stammers.

Cover to The Correction of Stammering.

Dennison’s interest in speech therapy arose from personal experience:

I was induced to take up the study of speech disorders because I had one to overcome. In my youth I stammered terribly and for over twenty years the tormenting fear of stammering hung over my life. There were times when I seemed to have mastered the trouble, only to find it return with greater force than before.

Young Dennison’s stammer was so bad that he wrote his name on a slip of paper whenever he collected his mail at the post office. The one realm where he was able to control his speech was politics, which he was involved in from an early age. During the 1919 provincial election, 14-year-old Dennison was hired by the United Farmers of Ontario to heckle Conservatives and Liberals campaigning in his native Renfrew County. His barbs were so effective that the established parties stopped sending their candidates. After quitting his job at the General Motors plant in Oshawa around 1926, Dennison took speech therapy classes in Kitchener and New York City. Dennison’s successful conquest of his stammer inspired him to open a school in Oshawa, which he moved to Toronto in 1930.

A key promotional vehicle for the school was The Correction of Stammering. First published in 1932, the booklet was advertised in publications ranging from Popular Mechanics to the Toronto Star. As Dennison noted in his introduction to the 1941 edition, it was “written for those who stammer or stutter rather than for individuals engaged in the speech correction profession.” The booklet served as both a general guide for stammerers to help themselves and an outline of Dennison’s teaching philosophy.

Introduction to The Correction of Stammering by William D. Dennison (Toronto: self-published, 1941).

When the Globe and Mail received a copy of The Correction of Stammering in December 1941, a leaflet slipped inside detailed the “Ten Commandments of Speech,” a list that summed up the school’s curriculum:

1. Thou shalt relax thyself and prepare for the expression of thy feelings
2. Thou shalt inhale thy breath steadily and deeply.
3. Thou shalt immediately use the diaphragm to apply breath pressure.
4. Thou shalt keep the stream of expression flowing steadily and strongly.
5. Thou shalt make the consonants merely chips of articulation on the surface of that stream.
6. Thou shalt always have a vowel ready at the beginning or end of each consonant.
7. Thou shalt find other outlets for thy anxieties and fears save through thy speech.
8. Thou shalt banish anxiety by ceasing to worry over past failures.
9. Thou shalt become hardened to the influence of those who frighten you.
10. Thou shalt form a new habit by talking every day.

Based in the Dennison home on Jarvis Street, the school offered up to 12 weeks of study. Following an initial consultation during which Dennison assessed each student’s particular needs, the first two weeks of study consisted of daily one-on-one sessions. Breath exercises to relax the student came first, followed by formation of vowels, then preparation of speeches. Once Dennison felt they were ready, students attended class lectures that built up their repertoire from simple speeches to performing one-act plays in front of public audiences. Dennison, or an advanced student, accompanied newcomers when they left the premises to practice real-world scenarios ranging from conversing with shopkeepers to talking on the phone.

Frederick Gardiner and William Dennison at the sod turning ceremony for Forest Hill Village municipal offices and library building, Eglinton Ave. W. at Vesta Dr., November 13, 1960. Photo by Geoffrey Frazer. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 207, Series 1251, Item 149.

While many attendees were local, Dennison offered boarding space for students from across North America and to those with cleft palates, lisping, and delayed speech. To help relax students, Dennison encouraged them to enjoy downtown Toronto’s attractions and made arrangements for athletic activities at the YMCA. On-site facilities included a ping-pong table, a library, and a garage. Boarders were encouraged to bring musical instruments for social activity nights. Parents of students under the age of 14 were welcome to sit in on lectures to provide a comforting presence and learn techniques they could use for further home practice.

Besides improving his students’ speech, Dennison also aimed to elevate their emotional well-being. He considered any stammerer prone to fighting their harassers as “an emotional sissy who is not big enough to ignore the individual who is so thoughtless as to tease or taunt him.” Dennison felt it was important to adjust his students’ mental attitudes so that they could “retain a calm, tranquil, easy approach” to any form of speaking. He worked to undo the conditioning that he believed caused students to stammer in certain situations.

Though Dennison closed the school when he assumed his mayoral duties in 1966, he maintained his interest in speech therapy by attending local seminars. He was frequently greeted by former students at public appearances, who thanked him for the success they enjoyed afterwards. As Dennison once told an aide who had witnessed the head of a real estate firm express his gratitude to the mayor for curing his stutter, “nothing I’ve accomplished in public office means more to me than that.”

Additional material from The Correction of Stammering by William D. Dennison (Toronto: self-published, 1941), the December 12, 1941, and February 15, 1966, editions of the Globe and Mail, the November 1949 edition of Popular Mechanics, and the September 11, 1969, edition of the Toronto Star. Thanks to Steve Kupferman for suggesting this story.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.