Making Every Word Count . . . and Correct
The “dictionary man” helps local grade-schoolers improve their communication skills
It’s as simple as ABC, something basic that few think of, thanks to our computers and smart phones:
But to children, a dictionary of their own can be a powerful thing, according to a Wheaton man who has been handing them out for 16 years.
“I’ve always been addicted to using good language — proper English writing,” says Ted Utchen, a “somewhat retired” Wheaton attorney who declines to give his age.
“Semantics has been an interest of mine.”
While working as a vice president and general counsel for a Chicago corporation, Utchen was “surprised that memos and correspondence from other companies had words misspelled. Over the decades, I got upset about that.”
A 2002 newspaper story describing The Dictionary Project provided him a mechanism to combat that concern. Formed in 1995, the national nonprofit (thedictionaryproject.net) donates dictionaries to third graders — “a good thing,” thought Utchen, also a local library aficionado.
“I said to myself, if we can get kids using dictionaries when they’re young, they’ll know how to spell right, and I won’t encounter misspellings with grown-ups,” says Utchen.
He called founder Mary French to ask how to get involved, then met with the superintendent of Wheaton’s District 200. After selecting a pocket dictionary from the seven samples French sent him, Utchen began visiting all 13 schools that same year.
“I go into each class, give each student their own dictionary and do a 35-minute talk about how to use it, including three reasons: ‘We read, we write, we talk. In each of those you use words. You want to use the right words and spell them the right way.’ Then I give examples,” says Utchen.
Most students are quite enthusiastic about getting their own dictionary. “They really get wound up about hard copies,” Utchen says. “They flip the pages and put it on their desk. It’s a great thing to do, especially in this age of computers.”
One child asked the question that might pop into many minds — what use is a dictionary when they have spell-check? “I said, let me ask you: If I wrote, ‘When I get through with brunch, I am going too your house,’ will spell-check catch the t-o-o? No. That’s why you need the dictionary. Spell-check and computers are not the answer to everything.”
Besides Wheaton, Utchen now visits 32 elementary schools a year in Glen Ellyn, West Chicago, Carol Stream, Batavia and Warrenville. “I forget how many dictionaries I’ve given out . . . it’s a lot.”
Gratitude arrives in adorable notes from the children, appreciative ones from teachers and at least one phone call from a parent. “She thanked me for doing it, then said, ‘You’d better stop, my daughter is now correcting everything I write!’ It made my day!”
His hobby admittedly takes a lot of his time, but Utchen is proud to be part of an effort that has reached all 50 states. Most donors are service groups, not individuals like him, but he deflects praise, instead crediting French, who he believes should receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I think she has made a real contribution to the country with her project.”
Some may scoff at the importance of dictionaries but not Utchen. “The theory I’ve developed is this: What does life consist of? It consists of relationships with other people. What do relationships consist of? Communication with each other. What do we use to communicate with each other? Words. If we use the right words with the right meanings, that will lead to better relationships and better lives. If we don’t learn to communicate, we wouldn’t have as good of lives as we otherwise would.”
He also enjoys simply watching the kids’ reactions to their dictionaries, both immediately and even years later.
At a recent Wheaton library book sale, he stopped to pay for a book. The young woman working there looked up and exclaimed, “You’re the dictionary man, aren’t you?”
“Yes, who are you?” Utchen answered.
“You gave me a dictionary!”
Utchen told the story with a bit of awe in his voice. “It’s nice to hear, even with all the years that have gone by, they remember that. Maybe, in this modern age, she keeps it by her computer.”
To look up the spelling of, perhaps, gratitude.Edit Module