- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Retired pediatrician Richard Skinner Jr. is 94 now, with snowy white hair, a kindly manner, a deep laugh and a strong Southern drawl. He’s like a family doctor from central casting.

All his life he’s followed where his intense curiosity has led. Even today, he reads voraciously, is teaching himself how to program computers, and was one of the first to order an Apple Watch.

So when he was still practicing medicine, when parents came to him with a familiar lament - my child is smart, but can’t seem to learn to read - he dug into the why and how of it.

And in 1968, seven years before Congress required public schools to offer special-education classes, he put a plan in motion.

He hired mothers and teenage girls to be tutors and paid them minimum wage. He found space in a church’s Sunday school classrooms. Then, with materials bought through the mail, they set about showing Jacksonville children, one at a time, how to get around a problem that few people knew or talked about back then.

Dyslexia.

Some people were skeptical: This is scientific mumbo-jumbo. The kids were just lazy, or dumb, or simply seeking attention. Or all of the above.

Skinner and his crew of amateurs, though, pressed on, starting with just a handful of students, and eventually teaching hundreds.

“He’s a personal hero,” said Laura Bailet, head of Nemours Children’s Specialty Care’s BrightStart! dyslexia program. “In terms of understanding how reading struggles affect a child’s health, he was really ahead of his time, decades ahead of his time.”

Skinner is a Jacksonville native, part of the extended Skinner family that at one time owned much of the Southside, where they had turpentine, farming and dairy operations.

His son, architect Richard Skinner III, said his dad was always driven to investigate new things. He laughs remembering how the family always had to be among the first to get the next new computer, when home computers were still a novelty.

“This is a guy whose curiosity is just endless,” the younger Skinner said. “He loves to learn. I’ve never met anybody who knows so much about so many things as he does. It’s not that he just reads about them, he actually gets into them.”

That kind of curiosity led him to study about and take action on dyslexia, which had long ago been identified but was still little discussed, even in the medical community.

“I never heard about it in medical school,” Richard Skinner Jr. said. “Never heard about it in residency. Never heard at all about it until I got into practice and ran into it head-on.”

Though he was a partner in a medical practice, Children’s Medical Group, and prominent in numerous medical associations, he carved out time to start the dyslexia program. He conferred with experts and eventually ordered learning materials he saw in National Geographic.

With a smile, he credits his medical partners for their tolerance. “Frequently some of the things I did reduced their income,” he said. “I have to pay real tribute to them, to put up with me as long as they did.”

He hired Grace DuPree, the mother of two of his patients, to direct it. She ended up staying until 1984.

She had a journalism degree, one year’s experience teaching middle school and little knowledge of dyslexia.

Skinner, though, was a strong mentor.

“He read everything,” said DuPree, now 86. “He knew people. And he taught us.”

She said fathers of prospective students were particularly skeptical that anything was really wrong with their children, but often would brag about them once they had learned to read.

Families were charged for the program, though often mothers were able to offset the cost by volunteering to be tutors. Some students were Skinner’s patients. Others came as referrals grew.

Every session had the same formula: One tutor, one student.

“Working on a one-to-one basis, you could cover a lot of work in three hours,” DuPree said.

Skinner hired Robin Vail, a Jacksonville University student, to screen children for learning disabilities. Skinner had been her pediatrician, and she was honored - even a little awed - when he asked her to come work with him.

That move helped lead to her eventual career: She got a doctorate at Florida State University, became a licensed psychologist, and worked largely with children.

Vail, now 69, said Skinner’s thinking was out of the mainstream in the 1960s, when children with learning disabilities were often left to languish in classrooms, falling farther behind with each year.

“He made me aware that education is such a huge part of a child’s life, that if they’re not doing well, don’t just accept that they have something wrong with them,” she said.

Rick Morales can vouch for the success of that approach.

He’s 52, a building contractor with a degree in finance from Wofford College. Early in elementary school, though, he had trouble learning to read, often transposing letters.

The diagnosis: mild dyslexia. His parents then sent him to Skinner’s program.

“He’s the one who taught me how to read,” he said. “I was struggling, and he was the one who figured out why I was struggling. That was important to me. I just wanted to get good grades.”

The Jacksonville Journal took notice of the program in 1970 with a story headlined, somewhat randomly, “Teen-age Tutors Are Beautiful.” It focused on the young teachers who helped the students, noting that a program that began with eight pupils had soon helped some 200.

“It’s like building a house,” Skinner told the paper. “Teach them the basics step by step, and they will learn.”

He wanted to challenge the children, many of whom thought they had little to offer. So poetry competitions - in which students memorized and recited poems - became a regular feature. So did math competitions.

Winners were given temporary possession of beat-up old trophies. They loved those prizes, Skinner said, laughing. “They clutched those statues like they were gold.”

In the 1970s, he took his program to Hope Haven Hospital. Anne Wall, director of communications there, said it was the “genesis” for what eventually became that institution’s educational programs for children with a range of learning disabilities. Five years ago, a building at what is now Hope Haven Children’s Clinic and Family Center was named after Skinner.

In the late 1980s he was at Nemours, where he was among those who interviewed and then hired Bailet, now head of the dyslexia program there.

Dyslexia tends to run in families, she said, and so she sometimes encounters parents of dyslexic children who had themselves been patients in Skinner’s program.

“They credit Dr. Skinner and his school with the success they’ve had as adults,” she said. “They tell me they felt that if that school had not existed, they would not have been successful in school or their careers, that they are indebted to Dr. Skinner and his school. It is an amazing legacy.”

For his part, Skinner said he was simply following where his curiosity led - something he enjoyed so much, “it was like throwing me in a pig pen.”

The results were rewarding.

“Everything we did was to try to get the patient, the person, to get a better self image, and also to give them a sense that, ‘I could do it,’ ” he said. “Their parents were just amazed to see what these kids could do.”

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com


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