A Quick Read Through the Life of Evelyn Wood

Times Staff Writer

Time magazine interviewed her. She appeared on national television with Jack Paar and Art Linkletter. And both the President of the United States and the Queen of Denmark personally requested her services.

Almost from the day she opened the first Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington in 1959, Evelyn Wood's name became virtually synonymous with speed reading.

How fast could an Evelyn Wood graduate read? One of her students appeared on television's "I've Got a Secret" carrying a large book. The book was "Gone With the Wind," and the girl's secret was that she could read the 689-page novel in less than an hour.

In Washington political circles in the early '60s, it was fashionable to take Wood's speed reading course, and members of the House of Representatives and Senate, including Sens. Abraham Ribicoff, William Proxmire, Herman E. Talmadge and Birch Bayh, were among those to sign up.

By the time President Kennedy, himself a rapid reader, invited Wood to the White House to teach speed reading to his staff in 1962, the middle-aged former Utah schoolteacher was already well on her way to being a household name.

But through it all, Evelyn Wood remained a teacher at heart whose teaching precept was that "knowledge is power" and that being able to read rapidly paved the way. "If you could read two or three thousand books a year, what would you know?" she asked rhetorically in a 1961 interview.

At age 77--although slowed down by a stroke and a decade retired from education--Wood's goal remains the same: "to get everyone to learn to read."

"I worked on a lot of ways of making the reading process easier to do, so that everybody could enjoy it," said Wood, adding that she always believed that most people do not like to read. "Everyone I talked to felt it wasn't very exciting. One of the reasons people don't read is because the process is so slow. If a person could read faster, they could stay interested."

A grandmotherly woman with short, curly gray hair and pale blue eyes, Wood was seated in her wheelchair in an office at the Huntington Beach headquarters of American Learning Corp. The company, a subsidiary of Encyclopedia Britannica, bought Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics in May for use in its nationwide Reading Game centers.

Although Wood, a resident of Salt Lake City, had not owned the business since 1966, she continued working for the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics national staff, training teachers and doing publicity around the world, until suffering a stroke in 1976.

Wood and her husband of 57 years, Doug, were vacationing in Southern California last week and they decided to stop in to meet executives of the company that will carry on the Evelyn Wood tradition.

"We think it is a very good fit with our own traditional remedial reading programs, and we perceive a real need for improving reading skills, comprehension, retention and speed at the junior high school and into the adult level," said Richard Ballot, president of American Learning Corp.

Ballot said the company will continue to call the speed-reading program Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics.

"It has a strong recognition on the part of the public, and as such it would be appropriate to retain the name," said Ballot, who remembers hearing the name as a schoolboy in the New York area in the early '60s. "It was promoted quite extensively and, to the uninitiated, at that point as a youngster in school, it was almost synonymous with reading skills."

As for meeting the woman behind the name, Ballot said, "it was really an enchanting experience to meet with the person who was responsible for developing the method that has helped many, many people over the years."

Soft-spoken, her voice occasionally not much louder than a hoarse whisper as a result of her stroke, Wood recalled the early days leading up to her "overnight" success. When her memory failed her--or when apparent modesty intervened--Wood's 83-year-old husband and their daughter, Carol Evans of Tucson, Ariz., helped fill in the gaps.

Although occasionally offering only the briefest of answers to questions or deferring questions to her daughter to answer, Wood displayed occasional flashes of a pixieish sense of humor. When asked how long she has lived in Salt Lake City, she smiled and said, "Quite a while--about a hundred years." Asked if her daughter was their only child, Wood responded, "The only and brightest."

Sentiment also briefly got the best of Wood when recalling her own mother, who had taught her to read at age 5. "My mother was . . . very sure that anybody could read," she said, her voice quavering.

"I just can't remember when I couldn't read," she continued. "It was fun to just see a book and be able to read it."

Wood went on to major in speech at the University of Utah, where she met student body president M. Douglas Wood, a business major. They were married a few days after graduation in 1929, she going on to a teaching career and he going into business.

It was while she was a graduate student at the University of Utah in the 1940s that Wood discovered that one of her professors had the ability to read about 6,000 words a minute.

"He would turn the pages very quickly, running his hand down the page, and she was so fascinated by it she stuck with him to find out more," Evans explained. "What she did was look at people who could read fast and watch what they did in common."

In the early 1950s, Wood taught her first reading class while working as a high school counselor for girls. She has master's degrees in speech and drama, and counseling. "As a counselor," Evans said, "she believed the kids who acted out (did so because they) weren't making it in the classroom. Many of them couldn't read. In most cases, when the kids learned how to read they quit acting out."

Evans noted that the school district tested her mother's reading program, and in one year Wood's students averaged 4.4 years of progress in reading skills. About this time Wood wrote "Reading Skills," her first textbook.

"She was also teaching a class in speed reading at the university (of Utah)," Evans explained. "Kids would bring sleeping bags the night before because only the people who were first in line could get in the course."

"It was a lot of fun," Wood said, "because everybody was excited about it and everybody wanted to do it. And all of them couldn't believe it and they'd say, 'It can't be done. You can't read any faster than 350 words a minute.' And I said that's certainly a shame because I knew it could be done. And they said, 'Fine, show us.' And I did hundreds of demonstrations of people. . . . So it was fun to do something that can't be done."

Wood's speed-reading system basically requires the reader to read down the page, not from left to right; to read groups of words, not a word at a time, and to avoid involuntary rereading of material.

"One of the things that I think is important is that she identified different modes that people have for connecting with the brain," Evans said. "Some people are very visual, and these people she could teach very fast. People who are more auditory, she would have them chew gum and do things to have them block the auditory saying of the words or sub-vocalizing the words (while reading), so that she could help them to be more visual.

"She was one of the first ones, I think, to identify that some people can go directly from the eye to the brain and bypass saying words vocally or in their heads."

So popular were Wood's speed-reading classes that in 1959, at the urging of friends living in Washington, the Woods left Utah and moved to Washington to open the first Eveyln Wood Reading Dynamics Institute.

Although she taught President Kennedy's White House staff, she did not, as some assume, teach Kennedy to speed read.

"Jack Kennedy was a naturally fast reader. He'd read nine newspapers before breakfast every morning," Doug Wood said.

A speed-reading White House staff was still considered newsworthy when members of President Nixon's staff, including the President's personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, took the Evelyn Wood reading course in 1970. At the time, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics operated more than 150 institutes in the United States and abroad.

Seven years later, President Carter and members of the First Family also took the course, with Time magazine duly reporting that "the President now zips along at a rapid 1,200 words a minute."

By then, however, the business's namesake was retired, having suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to walk, talk--or read.

"It affected every part of me. I couldn't lift a finger," Wood said. "For a little while I didn't think I wanted to live."

But, she said, "pretty soon I started thinking, what are the alternatives? I decided to get my legs out there and make them walk. So I said, 'Go' to them and they said, 'No.' I spent a lot of time weeping and a lot of time just sitting in the wheelchair watching television."

She slowly regained her speech and after two years of physical therapy she could walk again. Although she still uses a wheelchair to travel, she said she walks about a mile a day.

Wood is also back to reading everyday. Ask her how fast she reads, however, and Evelyn Wood remains mum.

"You see, the point with reading fast," Evans explained, "is that all material isn't worthy of the same speed. And if you can read fast you have the adaptability of being able to read at whatever speed the material calls for, and she never would quote a specific speed for herself because it would vary, depending on what she reads."

"When she'd pick up a novel, or easy reading," Doug Wood added, "she could get up to 10-15,000 (words per minute) without any trouble. With textbook reading, that's something else."

But speed isn't everything, he said.

"Most competitors who felt they could teach (speed reading), didn't have the art of comprehension," observed Doug Wood, who served as the company's president. "That's the secret--comprehending what you've read, and if you can't remember what you've read, you've wasted your time."

When the Woods sold Reading Dynamics in 1966, the company had grown so fast that Wood complained that there was not time to properly train all the instructors being hired.

By that time, Doug Wood also had grown tired of the hectic pace and was eager to return to Salt Lake City.

Because the company was faced with financial difficulties at the time of the sale, Evans said, "my folks didn't make anything on it. They got a small salary for my mother."

But the business end of Reading Dynamics never really interested her mother, Evans said.

"She was not a business person at all," she said. "She very idealistically wanted every person who didn't know how to read to have the opportunity to learn. She personally taught classes in Watts after the riots."

As for the fame that came her mother's way, Evans said, "she liked it in that it promoted reading, and reading was what was important to her."

It's still important to her. And Evelyn Wood is not ready to call it quits.

"I intend to be actively engaged again, and I want to write another book on further processes of reading," she said. "This is one of the things I was hoping with this new outfit (American Learning Corp.), to be able to continue myself doing important things in helping with the reading process."

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