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A Quick Read Through the Life of Evelyn Wood

August 14, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | 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.

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