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Overcoming speech difficulties prompts alumnus John Lemons to give back to Virginia Tech

February 10, 2016

John Lemons
John Lemons

Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, John Lemons couldn’t speak until he was 6 years old. His mother’s greatest fear was that John would get lost and not be able to tell anyone where he lived. With the help of his teachers, his situation improved until he got to high school. That’s when he began stuttering and stammering, suffering speech difficulties which have lasted nearly his entire life.

Lemons, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, recently agreed to endow a $100,000 gift to Virginia Tech’s Services for Students with Disabilities in the Division of Student Affairs. The John Lemons Enrichment Fund is intended to support current students who suffer speech impairment, including stuttering and stammering.

“I know the pain that students go through,” said Lemons. “I didn’t get much help and had to fend for myself, develop my own tools to work with. I have a tremendous passion and empathy for those with speech problems who are unable to effectively communicate.”

As a member of the Corps of Cadets, Lemons specifically remembers problems he had pronouncing words that began with the letter “P.”

“As a freshman, you had to ask for permission to do almost everything. Permission to enter an upperclassman’s room, to leave the dining table. Even permission to speak. I had a terrible time saying the letter ‘P.’ Once I got through my freshman year, I didn’t have to ask permission anymore, and things improved.”

Lemons excelled as a cadet. Along with Tau Beta Pi and Eta Kappa Nu, he was a member of the Regimental Color Guard, the Arnold Air Society, Scabbard and Blade, and the Pershing Rifles, now known as the Gregory Guard.

“Of all the honors and societies, the one I enjoyed the most was the Pershing Rifles,” said Lemons. “I think we had about 36 members, and we got to march in all the major parades, all across the state. I enjoyed the perfection and the esprit de’ corps.”

That same kind of attention to detail inspired him to work to overcome his speech difficulties. “Every opportunity I had to stand up and talk, teach, or make a presentation, I took it,” he recalled.

Lemons was diligent in his efforts to enhance his communication skills, and went on to enjoy an ultra-successful professional career. He led four different manufacturing companies, primarily focused on the design and production of semiconductors. In retirement, he spends time mentoring and working with non-profits.

It’s also important for him to help young people transition from school to a professional career, especially carrying with them confidence in their ability to communicate. “Anything that would help a student with a speech problem, stuttering or stammering, to develop their own tools to better deal with their situation and develop confidence in their ability to speak effectively will always be one of my number one goals.”  

At Virginia Tech, Lemons’ gift will provide support for testing and evaluation of students who register with Services for Students with Disabilities for accommodations and services. It also calls for assisting students who register with Autism Spectrum Disorder, another one of Lemon’s concerns.

Vice President for Student Affairs, Patty Perillo says Lemons’ gift will help students maximize their potential and find ways to become their best selves.

“When you give to the Division of Student Affairs you are contributing to the learning and healthy development of the whole student,” said Perillo. “Our work in DSA is to optimize the development and potential of each student, connecting inside- and outside-the-classroom learning.  Our focus is helping young people not only answer the question of what do I want to do but who do I want to be.”

“Mr. Lemons’ story is inspiring and will motivate students to believe that having a disability, whether it involves speech, learning, Autism, or a physical impairment, that with perseverance and hard work, they too can reach their goals,” said Susan Angle, director of Services for Students with Disabilities. “His gift will certainly touch the lives of students and help them reach their academic goals and dreams.” 

Lemons makes a point to return regularly to the Blacksburg campus from his home in northern California. He will be back in April when he is inducted into the Academy of Engineering Excellence, reserved for those 135 alumni out of 65,000 graduates holding an engineering degree from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering who have made sustained and meritorious engineering or leadership contributions during their careers.

Meanwhile, he looks forward to seeing the John Lemons Enrichment Fund make a difference for students who need just a little bit of extra care and attention.

“As we are blessed, we have to bless others. We have to give back,” said Lemons. “I see myself as being totally blessed, through my Virginia Tech education and a successful career. Life is not going to be complete unless we help others by giving of our time, money, and talents.  We must provide for others the same chance that others have given to us.”

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.