When Hollywood stars raise funds for a cause related to one of their own children, they’re following the lead of Spencer Tracy’s wife, Louise, who opened the hearts and ears of the world to the plight of deaf children.
She founded the John Tracy Clinic, the first preschool in the nation to offer free emotional support, information and speech and lip-reading classes to help families cope with deafness. It’s named for the couple’s son, who is deaf.
Louise Treadwell, a gifted actress, was hired in 1923 as leading lady with a stock company. Spencer Tracy, a future Oscar winner, was a bit player in the same show.
They were married six weeks after they met, between the matinee and evening performances, by a Catholic priest in Cincinnati. Their son, John, was born in 1924.
Their world was upended one morning when John was 10 months old.
“I went to our son’s crib,” Louise wrote years later. “It was time to waken him. The door accidentally slammed shut. He didn’t move.
“ ‘Johnny, Johnny! It’s time to wake up,’ I said.
“ ‘Johnny ...’ I stopped suddenly. I cannot say what prompted me. Scarcely conscious that I did so, I stood motionless beside his crib. I called his name again -- and then I shouted it. He slept on.
“And so I discovered our baby was deaf. I was scared stiff.... There is nothing so frightening as ignorance. I didn’t tell anyone of my discovery -- not even my husband.”
She consulted several doctors, who all told her the same thing: “Nerve damage, cause unknown,” no remedy.
Finally, she told Spencer.
“Crying, he said, ‘He’ll never be able to say “Daddy.” ’ My husband was thinking, of course, that being deaf meant being dumb; in those days, the two were thought to go together like salt and pepper.”
The Tracys refused to accept doctors’ advice to “wait -- in a few years he’ll be old enough for a state [special education] school.” At last a specialist encouraged them to keep talking to John, she said, “and it turned out that was just the right thing to do.” She and Spencer went right on talking, singing, reading and telling him nursery rhymes.
Even a bout with polio, at age 6, failed to halt John’s progress. Through his mother’s perseverance and as many as 3,000 repetitions of one word, he learned to speak and lip-read.
Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy’s career was catching fire. In 1930, he was offered the starring role in the Broadway play “The Last Mile.” Director John Ford saw him and brought him to Hollywood that year for the prison baseball comedy “Up the River.” It wasn’t a big hit, but it introduced the film world to Tracy -- and to Humphrey Bogart.
In 1932, the Tracys’ daughter, Susie, was born. Four years later the family moved to a seven-acre ranch in Encino, where they lived for 19 years.
In 1942, when John was 18, Louise Tracy spoke publicly for the first time about rearing a deaf child. This was at a USC workshop on wartime hearing loss in adults, but several mothers of deaf children attended.
She invited a dozen mothers and their deaf children to her home, where she passed along helpful tips, including word games she had made up. With the help of those mothers and Victor Goodhill, who would become an internationally recognized eye, ear, nose and throat surgeon, the John Tracy Clinic opened in a small bungalow on the USC campus in 1942.
Soon, Louise Tracy and a dozen mothers who painted, repaired the furniture and sewed curtains were joined by two teachers. The clinic offered free hearing screenings and provided a sense of community that the deaf had never had. Research in its laboratories resulted in procedures that would contribute significantly to pediatric audiology.
That same year, 1942, Spencer Tracy teamed up for the first time with Katharine Hepburn in the film “Woman of the Year.” They began a stormy 27-year relationship, but divorce was not an option for Tracy, a Catholic.
Soon the clinic absorbed Louise Tracy’s time and attention. She spent the next four decades making the nonprofit institution world-renowned.
For the first few years, Spencer Tracy was the clinic’s sole support. Then one of Gloria Swanson’s ex-husbands left a windfall, and Hollywood has donated ever since.
By 1950, the John Tracy Clinic had outgrown its USC location and began to build a new home on West Adams Boulevard. To accommodate the $250,000 clinic, bulldozers razed the home of pioneer clubwoman Caroline Severance, who was instrumental in getting California women the vote in 1911 -- nine years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed suffrage to women nationwide.
Spencer Tracy turned the opening of his 1951 film “Father’s Little Dividend” at the Egyptian Theatre into a clinic fundraiser.
In a speech at the dedication of the clinic’s headquarters in 1952, he said: “You honor me because I am a movie actor, a star in Hollywood terms. Well, there’s nothing I’ve ever done that can match what Louise has done for deaf children and their parents.” Although Spencer Tracy was never one for public demonstrations of affection, he leaned over and kissed his wife.
As for son John, he graduated from Pasadena City College and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles -- now known as the California Institute of the Arts. He joined Disney Studios, where he rose through the artistic ranks, married and had a son.
Spencer Tracy died in 1967. Louise, who won numerous awards and held many honorary degrees, died in 1983, at 87.
Dr. James Harrell, a deaf physician who learned to communicate at the clinic she built, spoke at her funeral. He called her love and dedication “an echo in the eternity of silence.”