Mystery Author Unveiled:
Meet Henry Kisor

By Karen Putz, Illinois Hands & Voices

Every Sunday, Chicago Sun Times readers look forward to finding Henry Kisor's byline. Henry Kisor is a literary reviewer and book editor at the Sun-Times, one of the ten largest newspapers in the United States . Each day, he dives into books of all kinds, popular best sellers such as the DaVinci Code, summer fluff devoured by beachgoers, or works of literary art that end up as leather-bound treasures in home libraries all across America. In the Sunday Sun Times, he entices readers with short reviews of books that either earn his nod of approval or a recommendation not to bother. For 31 years of his 38 year career at the Sun Times, Henry has published a list of "Top Ten" books of the year, a list that many people hang on their refrigerators for "must reads" until the next list comes out.

"What's so special about Henry?" you may be wondering to yourself.

From 1977 to 1982, he turned his Master's degree into a teaching career, teaching a class at Northwestern University 's Medill School of Journalism while continuing his job at the Sun-Times. In 1981, Henry became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In 2001, he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. He's written an autobiography, two non-fiction books and two mystery novels and also co-authored a children's book.

Okay, so this Henry fella is a pretty interesting guy with a very nice career. He also happens to be deaf. Deaf as in, "please don't bother to shout, it really won't do you any good" deaf. In other words, as Henry quips, he's a "flatliner on an audiogram."

Henry lost his hearing at the age of 3 1/2 due to spinal meningitis. He grew up in a suburb of Chicago , with parents who worked hard to teach Henry to maintain his ability to speak. "My parents were my mentors," says Henry. "I did not know another deaf person until I was a graduate student. I've had a number of professional mentors, of course, but none were deaf." Henry's teacher, Doris Mirrielees, taught Henry to read and write shortly after his hearing loss occurred. Henry utilized a hearing aid until the age of eight and since then, has relied on speechreading as his primary access to face-to-face communication.

Henry's wife Debby is hearing, as well as his two sons, Colin and Conan. Early in his career, Henry and Debby functioned as a team to enable Henry to overcome various barriers. Debby spent many hours transcribing recorded conversations and interviews into written form. Today, email is Henry's number one tool for access to communication that has made his job much easier. "The TTY/TDD," says Henry, "was never really accepted by the hearing world, nor was the voice relay service. Everyone uses e-mail, and more and more professionals use e-mail in lieu of the telephone because it leaves an easily accessible electronic trail. The people I work with in publishing need not even know I am deaf, although most of them do, of course."

Henry's vocabulary is often colored with words such as "miscreant, foofaraw, or taciturn," all the more to challenge the reader to open a dictionary and expand their own command of English. "Ever since I was a young boy," says Henry, "I have loved to read." As a youngster, Henry spent many hours holed up in his bedroom devouring books, partly because communication with his peers was difficult and partly because he simply loved to read.

"Early on, I learned that the best coping skill available to me was to read widely and deeply," says Henry. "If something was assigned to us in class, I'd seek out extra reading to go beyond the textbook. I'd ask the teachers what to read and they were more than happy to recommend sources. As a result I tended to know more about a given subject than just about any other kid in my grade."

Henry's love of trains led him to write "Zephyr," a book about an Amtrak journey from Chicago to California . Along the way, he recorded many conversations with fellow train passengers and crew, relying on speechreading and hearing companions to "lend their ears" to gather information for him.

Approaching midlife, Henry felt he needed some excitement. A childhood dream of flying led him to pursue lessons and he found an instructor to teach him how to maneuver a Cessna through the air. He purchased his own Cessna 150 and decided that a cross-country journey would be an excellent way to bring some excitement into his life. The idea was to replicate the historic journey of Cal Rodgers (who was also deaf) from New York to California , covering 4,231 miles, and the adventure ended up as another book: "The Flight of the Gin Fizz."

Henry vividly recalled his first experience that planted the desire to learn to fly: "In 1943, when I was three and my father was stationed at the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station, he sat me in the cockpit of an Avenger torpedo bomber. I waggled the joystick and the hook of the impulse to fly was well and truly set. I still remember that."

He continues, "All through my childhood I daydreamed of being a pilot. Later on, when I was in college, a roommate earned his private pilot certificate, and I was jealous - but at that time I bought into the conventional wisdom that you had to be able to use the radio to fly. Not
until I met James Marsters, a deaf orthodontist in California , at an AG Bell convention did I learn the truth. He owned and flew a Piper Tri-Pacer. The old dream resurfaced, but it was years before my second son graduated from college and I was able to afford the $5,000 it took then to learn to fly."

"Flying," says Henry, "is the greatest thing I have ever done."

"Second to marrying Debby and having my sons," he quickly adds with a smile.

In 1994, Henry joined the International Deaf Pilots Association and found a new connection with deaf and hard of hearing pilots from all over. Each year, the pilots host a "Fly In" at airports that do not require radio communication with control towers. The common bond of love of flying bridges the communication difficulties between those who use American Sign Language and those who rely on oral communication. Henry gravitates towards those who communicate orally or are late-deafened, but he doesn't hesitate to use the colorful signs that his ASL buddies have taught him.

Henry is often asked, "What do you wish that your parents had done differently when you were growing up?" To that, he often responds, "I don't like to look back and wish for this or that. Monday morning quarterbacking never accomplishes anything. My parents did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time."Henry continues: "I am all for the Hands & Voices philosophy. Whatever works for the individual deaf child or adult should be championed by everyone. I do not, however, think blanket approval of all methods should be entered into blindly. Each method has its advantages, but also has its disadvantages, too, and we should be honest about both. No one size will fit all."

"Whatever your choice of culture or communication method," advises Henry, "MASTER WRITTEN ENGLISH. To be able to read and write facilely in the language that has become the most important and the most widely used in the global professional and business world is absolutely vital if one is to achieve income and distinction outside the small world of the deaf and hard of hearing. (Speaking English intelligibly is nice, but not all that important.) I would encourage parents to read to their children and have them read "aloud" to them, whether using voice or sign or both."

Social situations continue to be a tough thing for Henry to navigate when it comes to obligatory functions such as Christmas parties or large groups in noisy situations. While it is difficult to speechread conversation that flies back and forth at a rapid pace, it is also hard for Henry to make himself understood when his voice becomes mingled with background noise.

"A deaf person often has to go more than halfway to become acquainted with a hearing person," Henry explains. "Sometimes trying hard works and we make nice new friends."

Sometimes, all the effort goes nowhere if the other person doesn't extend a little effort to get to know the person who is deaf.

"About 15 years ago," says Henry, "I stopped pretending and trying hard to fit in." It was around this time that Henry wrote his first book, "What's That Pig Outdoors," a memoir that chronicled his life with hearing loss. "I am a little bit of a loner, partly because I am a writer, and partly because I have stopped trying so hard to fit in at social functions."

Henry divides his time between work in Chicago and writing at his cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Henry's second mystery "A Venture Into Murder," will be released in November of this year. He is hard at work writing the third mystery in a series, set to be released in fall of 2006. "Buy lots of books and give them as gifts for the holiday," quips Henry. "Support your local mystery author."

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