Lessons From the Past

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Sometimes you have to reach deep in the past to see how to deal with a current crisis. For example, the success of the John Tracy Clinic shows us one possible way to deal with failing public schools: Avoid them.

“The leading diagnostic and education center for young children with hearing loss,” as their web site proclaims, is a private, non-profit institution founded by the wife of screen legend Spencer Tracy, largely with his money.

The man who the clinic was named after was the actor’s son, born deaf. Tracy’s wife, Louise, developed the clinic to aid other parents who faced the same challenge.

“I felt that we might start in a very modest sort of way, say with three or four children,” Louise Tracy recalled of her efforts to establish the school in Los Angeles in the 1930s. “Those should not be hard to find, especially as we were willing to finance the venture, and, for the time being, a tuition fee could be waived.”

“I mentally began to turn our den and patio into school room and play yard. All we needed was one good teacher and some children.”

“Louise mentioned the idea to John’s teacher, Mrs. Payzant, who was plainly appalled by it,” James Curtis wrote in his biography of Spencer Tracy that was published in 2011. “The public school system, however overtaxed, needed every student it could get.”

“A loss of even a few would trigger a drop in funding that could result in a teacher losing her job.” (These are the same people who angle for more public school funding with the plea, “It’s for the children.”)

“Louise went to the department of handicapped children at the Board of Education, but they couldn’t release any names, nor could they offer any suggestions,” Curtis revealed. “Next she tried doctors, talking to Dr. Dietrich, who was their pediatrician, and Dr. Dennis, their family practitioner, both of whom thought her plan quite reasonable, even if they knew of no deaf children.”

It turned out that there were at least 200 in California alone. Today the clinic serves students from around the world.

“The clinic was among the first to start a hearing-impaired child’s training in infancy and make parental education a critical component,” Valerie J. Nelson wrote in her obituary of John Tracy that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “It has helped an estimated 245,000 parents and children.”

Finally, a word or two about Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis, from which much of the above information comes. The subject of this fairly definitive chronicle, Spencer Tracy, may not have been wholly admirable but, on the whole, it is hard not to admire him.

Like many of today’s stars, Tracy was a liberal Democrat who did not shy away from message movies. Unlike them, he put his money where his mouth is.

Tracy’s biographer shows that the world-acclaimed actor, who demanded and got what were at the time were exorbitant fees for his acting services, lavished much more on the clinic than he ever spent on himself. While the man who Frank Sinatra called “the gray fox” often gave the clinic $30-40,000 a year, Tracy lived on less than $1,000 a month.

In the words of one of his most famous characters—Dan Haywood, the Maine jurist who presided over the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals—Tracy really did believe in “justice, truth and the value of a single human being.”  By the way, Tracy delivered that “judgment” in a ten-minute monologue which he filmed in one continuous take.

“How did you do that so easily?,” his co-star Burt Lancaster asked him. Tracy’s response: “You practice for thirty-five years.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org