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John Tracy, 82; deaf son of actor Spencer Tracy, clinic namesake

Obituaries

June 17, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

John Tracy, the deaf son of actor Spencer Tracy who inspired his parents to establish the pioneering John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles to help young hearing-impaired children and their families, has died. He was 82.

Tracy died Friday night at his son's ranch in Acton, where he had lived for the past five years, said his sister, Susie Tracy. The cause of death was not specified.

He was 17 when his mother, Louise Treadwell Tracy, first spoke publicly about rearing a deaf child. The speech at USC led her to found the clinic in a campus bungalow in 1942, and she helped build the nonprofit into a leading institution for deaf education. For the first few years, Spencer Tracy was the clinic's sole support.

"As a child, John Tracy couldn't have known that he would be the inspiration of a whole movement to give new hope to parents of children with hearing loss," Barbara F. Hecht, president of the clinic, told The Times.

The clinic was among the first to start a hearing-impaired child's training in infancy and make parental education a critical component. It has helped an estimated 245,000 parents and children.

It tries to educate "deaf children through their mothers and fathers, who otherwise would not know what to do with them.... I hoped it would help a great deal," John Tracy wrote in 1946 in the Volta Review, the journal of the Alexander Graham Bell Assn. for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The story, written when he was 22, was headlined "My Complicated Life."

John Ten Broeck Tracy was born June 26, 1924, in Milwaukee to two actors who married between a matinee and evening performance.

When Tracy was 10 months old, his mother became alarmed when a door that accidentally slammed shut failed to wake him.

"I stopped suddenly.... 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," she said years later.

Afraid to tell anyone, even her husband, she consulted several doctors who told her that her son had "nerve damage, cause unknown." They also said he would never talk.

The Tracys refused to accept doctors' advice to "wait -- in a few years he'll be old enough for a state school," a reference to deaf education that would start when he was 6.

"We went right on talking to Johnny, singing to him, telling him nursery rhymes, and as it turned out, that was just the right thing to do," Louise once said, according to a 1983 Times story.

He once told of a time when he was 3 or 4 and his mother took a break from chattering to him. He remembered "leaning my face forward closer to hers and saying, 'Talk!' That was my first word," Tracy told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 2003.

Through his mother's perseverance and as many as 3,000 repetitions of one word, Tracy learned to speak and read lips, Ladies' Home Journal reported in 1972.

Despite a bout with polio at 6 that left him with a weakened leg, Tracy began riding horses at 9 and competed in Riviera Country Club riding contests, he wrote in Volta. He also became a dedicated polo and tennis player.

With his father's acting career taking off, the family put down roots in 1936 on an eight-acre ranch in Encino, where they lived for 19 years.

At 14, Tracy began writing stories and drawing cartoons for a newsletter delivered to family and friends that he published for years on a printing press in his bedroom.

A film buff, he often got an assist from his father, who would give him a script "so John could read it and get more out of the movie," said Susie, his younger sister.

Although Tracy had been mainly home-schooled by tutors, he went to Pasadena City College, and his father spoke at his graduation.

After attending what is now the California Institute of the Arts, Tracy worked for several years in the art props department at Walt Disney Studios; Disney was a close family friend. Tracy stopped working when his eyesight started to fail in the late 1950s.

Well into adulthood, he learned that his deafness was due to Usher syndrome, a genetic disease that was also to blame for his fading vision. By the early 1990s, he was legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa.

In 1953, he married Nadine Carr, a neighbor with whom he used to ride horses.

They had a son, Joseph Spencer Tracy, before divorcing in 1957.

By then, his family had moved to Holmby Hills and added a room next to Tracy's bedroom to house his collections, which included art books, comics and scrapbooks that documented world events.

A year before his mother died in 1983, Tracy moved to a Santa Monica retirement home, then later to Acton. His father died in 1967.

When asked whether he had a message for the hearing-impaired children who attend the clinic that bears his name, Tracy told the Daily News in 2003 that "I want to let the kids know they can live a full life. Sports, schools, hobbies, interests, dating, marriage, have a family, drive a car -- all of it."

In addition to his sister, Susie, and his son, Joseph, who is an artist, Tracy is survived by three grandchildren.

Services are pending. Memorial donations may be made to the John Tracy Clinic, 806 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90007. Details: www.jtc.org.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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