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TUPPER: The making of a great South Dakotan

Don Barnett

If you ever doubt the impact of good teachers, consider the story of Don Barnett.

He was a sixth-grader in the 1950s in Rapid City when he developed a painfully noticeable stutter.

"Whenever I was called on to recite or read in class, the kids giggled like crazy and made fun of me," Barnett recalled during a recent stop in Mitchell. "Very few of the teachers were even sympathetic."

One morning at Sunday school, the young Barnett grew so angry at his tormentors that he threw a shoe at one of his classmates. Finally, Barnett spoke with his favorite teacher, Hazel Prunty, about the misery his stuttering was causing him.

Barnett remembers her words.

"But Don," she said, "our school has a therapist, and we can help you, and we will."

She sprang into action, speaking to the principal, arranging for speech therapy, and asking other teachers not to make him read aloud until he felt more comfortable.

Before Barnett's sophomore year, Prunty spoke with Hazel Heiman, the high school speech teacher and debate coach, and encouraged her to work with Barnett (Heiman later taught at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell). By the time he graduated, he had claimed a pair of runner-up awards in state oratory and declamation competitions. He went on to college and served with the Army in the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to 1971. Barnett, at only 28 years of age, won an election to become Rapid City's mayor, much to the surprise of those who remembered him as a stuttering kid.

"Believe me, my high school friends -- there were 400 in my class, and 390 were dumbfounded that I even ran for office, and all of them were dumbfounded when I won," Barnett said.

Soon after, he was thrust into the national spotlight by a 1972 flood in Rapid City that killed 238 people, injured 3,000 more, and destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings. His handling of that crisis and his other contributions to Rapid City during his two terms as mayor eventually landed him in the South Dakota Hall of Fame.

Barnett is now 71 years old and living in Colorado. He's written a book titled "I Fled," a fictional tale about a boy struggling with a stuttering problem. The book is inspired by Barnett's own experiences and is available at

"It's designed for middle schoolers and teenagers who might have a stuttering issue to show them that stuttering's not the end of the world," Barnett said.

The book includes a touching dedication to those two teachers, Hazel Prunty and Hazel Heiman, who helped him overcome stuttering. Without them, Barnett might have lingered in depression and obscurity. Instead, with their help, he flourished.

"By graduation day of May 1960, my eyes were open to the wide horizons of higher education and personal ambition," Barnett wrote.

"May God bless Mrs. Prunty and Miss Heiman."