You are on page 1of 4


Haywood, Calif.#
WILSON TALLEY spent a lifetime meticulously constructing his résumé as
a world-renowned nuclear physicist. He taught for 35 years at the University
of California, Davis, and worked as a teaching assistant to Edward Teller, the
father of the hydrogen bomb, with whom he wrote two books. Dr. Talley also
served as a consultant to corporations and foundations, and was an adviser to
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.
Then, five years ago, Dr. Talley added another pearl to his strand of
academic accomplishments. While recovering from a stroke that devastated
his life and career, he became the first person in his speech therapy program
to attend preschool.
Dr. Talley, who lost many communication skills including speech, acted
the dual roles of language student and physics professor.
“Wilson came to me one day and said: ‘More. Has to be more,’.” said Dr.
Jan R. Avent, a professor of communicative sciences and disorders at
California State University, East Bay (formerly Hayward). She is also the
director of the university’s Aphasia Treatment Program, where Dr. Talley is a
“So my proposal was: ‘You know science. We have children on this campus
who need to learn science. How do you feel about going in to be a science
teacher?’.” Dr. Avent said. “And he took a step back, thought for maybe five
seconds and said, ‘Yes, do it.’.”
Aphasia is a language impairment brought on by brain injury. It affects
reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of the 500,000 Americans who
survive strokes each year, 25 to 40 percent become aphasic. And while the
National Center for Health Statistics cites a marginal increase of white men
over women who have strokes, aphasia ultimately affects the sexes equally.
“Suddenly, when you’re without the ability to communicate the way you
always have, it’s like death,” said Dr. Avent, who for 25 years has worked with
aphasia patients, ranging in age from 20 to over 70. Nearly 75 percent of her
patients do not return to work, she said.
Dr. Talley was 63 years old in 1998, when his life changed irrevocably. As
the director (now president emeritus) of the Fannie and John Hertz
Foundation in Livermore, Calif., he was visiting New York City to interview
fellowship candidates in physics. In a Midtown hotel room he woke up at 2
a.m. partly paralyzed, able to crawl to the bathroom. By breakfast time, in a
disheveled state — he could not shower or shave because he was unable to
operate the faucets — Dr. Talley could say only yes and no. He managed to
elude worried graduate students and hotel staff who wanted to get him
medical help, but he could not respond appropriately. Having regained
mobility when the blood flow returned to part of his brain, Dr. Talley then
waved an airline ticket, caught a cab to the airport (which one is still in
dispute, said his wife, Helen) and miraculously changed his return flight home
to San Francisco, arriving a day early. He wandered the airport for three hours
and tried to board another plane, until airline officials became concerned and
went through his luggage to find his identification. They then called his wife at
Weeks later, doctors in a Berkeley hospital told Mrs. Talley to put her
husband, who could not even remember his wife’s name, in a nursing home.
“They felt he was not going to progress,” she said.
Instead, she enrolled him in Dr. Avent’s Aphasia Treatment Program,
which she learned of through an employee at the Hertz Foundation. The goal
was to have him relearn multiple communication skills besides handling
money and crossing a street. “He felt so overwhelmed at first,” Mrs. Talley
said. “So he’d just close his eyes and go to sleep.”
“Yes, this is it,” Dr. Talley said about those first months in the program.
Two years later, after trying traditional forms of speech therapy and more
controversial treatments like Edward Teller’s personal hyperbaric oxygen
chamber, Dr. Talley grew impatient with his progress.
At the same time, Dr. Avent was searching educational literature for ways
to help some of her highly accomplished patients adapt more successfully to
what she calls their “uninvited retirement.”
She drew on the educational concept of “apprenticeship learning,” in
which children guide adults in a classroom. She named her method
“reciprocal scaffolding” and chose Dr. Talley to test it in a six-week trial at the
university’s Early Childhood Education Center. But Mrs. Talley had
reservations about the plan, knowing her husband to be a “brilliant man too
involved in his professional career” to engage with youngsters.
“He didn’t have the time or interest for people, let alone children,” Mrs.
Talley said.
Dr. Avent saw it differently. She thought Dr. Talley was a natural choice
not only because of his background but also because the hands-on nature of
science instruction could help his recovery. Dr. Avent’s aim was to see if Dr.
Talley could draw on his pre-stroke knowledge and improve his language
skills by acting as a teacher to 4-year-olds. The idea was for them to teach one
another, with simple language as their platform.
“I wanted to see if he would have better access to the vocabulary of his
life’s career,” Dr. Avent said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
During the spring of 2000, Dr. Talley’s lesson plans evolved from the
grammatically incorrect phrase “Monday with the children’s” to lists of
ingredients he would need for the experiments and elaborate cause-and-effect
diagrams to prove each thesis.
When the six-week trial ended, Dr. Avent published a paper about Dr.
Talley in the journal Aphasiology. She also presented her findings at
conferences while grappling with the problem of what to do next for Dr.
Talley’s development.
But the preschoolers and their teachers had grown used to their
“professor” and the bag of tricks he brought to the classroom twice a week. As
for Dr. Talley, he had successfully adapted to the commotion of preschool and
warmed to the children. The world at large was no longer so overwhelming for
him and his social life began to expand. The school’s teachers asked their
professor to stay on, and he accepted.
“This is right here,” Dr. Talley said, pointing to the latest entry on his
résumé, which lists his recent years of teaching at the preschool.
A pen and small pads of paper are still essential conversational props for
Dr. Talley. Diagrams provide clarification. Numbers, which he writes often,
sometimes confuse rather than confirm a point. But writing things on a pad
doesn’t work with a class of 4-year-olds. They are quick to remind him that
they can’t read it. So Dr. Talley has learned to rely on his speech when
conducting the experiments.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Dr. Talley tried to show the children how
a common food could be used to conduct electricity. He rolled a large orange
across a round table to the nine squirming children and their teacher, Debbie
Vigil. They discussed shapes and smells. Managing to block out the
cacophony, Dr. Talley meticulously inserted two metal probes into the orange.
At the same time, he held a black box with a small digital clock in it. Wires
connected the probes to the box. With enough manipulation, Dr. Talley got the
acidic juice from the orange to illuminate the clock. As the numbers on the
clock flashed, the children and their professor counted together.
The next experiment was about air flow and movement. “Now you; now
you,” Dr. Talley said to the preschoolers, helping each child pump air into a
balloon. Wincing for fear of a loud pop, Dr. Talley took the inflated balloon
and attached it to the nozzle of a bottle glued to a paper plate. The downward
motion of the air sent the plate across the table like a Hovercraft. The
delighted children shrieked as Ms. Vigil, their teacher, elaborated in ways that
Dr. Talley could not on the laws of motion.
Dr. Talley completed one more assignment with the children before
grabbing his own school bag and heading off to a long afternoon of classes in
the aphasia program.
He devised new experiments with the children twice a week until this
month. Then he heads to the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of
California, Berkeley, where he will spend the summer working with 6- to 12-
year-olds under the guidance of a mentor.
Asked if he enjoys teaching Newtonian physics to such young children, Dr.
Talley replied: “Yes, yes, this is very good. I love it.”