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The Listener

April 16, 2007


Ryan Prewitt photo– Len Pagano signs for Gloria Basta Thursday night during a homeowner’s association meeting at St. Peters City Hall.


In a silent world, St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano learned to hear

Sunday, April 15, 2007 5:48 PM CDT


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MO – Leonard and Dolores, brother and sister, grew up in a world where sound was superfluous, disconnected, without meaning.

If the doorbell rang nothing happened. Neither their mother nor father responded.

Their home was silent. Their parents were deaf and spoke little.

“I cannot even say it was broken English,” Dolores says. “It was broken syllables.”

There was no radio. Why would they have a radio? There was no TV. This was the 1940s. Most of their parents’ friends were deaf. And many of their friends’ children were deaf.

The language of Leonard and Dolores was American Sign Language.

Len Pagano is now 62 and Dolores Davenport 59. They both live in St. Peters. Len was sworn in as St. Peters mayor Thursday.

Their parents, Bartolo and Dolores Pagano, died tragically in 1974.

Len and Dolores look back at their childhood and wonder how it came to be that they were mistakenly considered deaf by their parents.

“They took it for granted that they would have deaf children,” Dolores says.

Len doesn’t recall his mother or father ever asking, via sign language: Can you hear?

Their parents didn’t discover the children could hear until Dolores was 6 and Len was 8.

It happened at a nursery school where Len and Dolores spent time with hearing children. Workers there noticed that the brother and sister would turn their heads when the other children would call each other’s names while playing.

What was confusing was that Len and Dolores did not respond when their own names were called. That’s because at home their parents, who had limited speech, called them “Do” and “La,” not “Dolores” and “Leonard,” Dolores says.

She vividly recalls her mother’s reaction to the fact that they could hear.

“My mom was so thrilled,” Dolores says.

In fact, says Len, their mother considered it divine intervention.

“She always told me she thought it was a miracle,” Len says. “It wasn’t.”

For a long time their mother would ask: Can you still hear?

Perhaps she asked because she had lost her hearing at age 4 after contracting rubella and smallpox. Their father was born deaf.

On April 3, Len won a six-way race, becoming mayor of Missouri’s 10th most populous city. He had served 24 years as an alderman.

His greatest gift as a public servant, he says, is his ability to listen to people.

“Mainly because of how I grew up,” he says.

‘A common assumption’

Years ago it was easier to mistakenly conclude that a hearing child was deaf, says Teri Ouellette, director of the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, in Indianapolis. The institute, founded in 1837 in St. Louis, has a center in Chesterfield.

“It was a very common assumption during the 1940s to assume that a deaf couple would have deaf children,” she says.

An estimated three of every 1,000 babies born in the United States is deaf or hard of hearing, the phrase preferred by various organizations for the deaf.

Of those babies, 96 percent are born to parents who hear.

Today, Ouellette says, newborns are screened for hearing loss, a task greatly improved in the 1970s by the Auditory Brainstem Response test.

Hearing problems can be hereditary. Bartolo Pagano was one of six children; he had a sister who was deaf.

Len and Joyce Pagano have three children and eight grandchildren. None has a hearing problem. Dolores and John Davenport have a daughter and a grandson who both hear well.

But most hereditary hearing losses are the result of recessive genes, Ouellette says, meaning it can take generations for a hearing loss to appear.

Ouellette says it makes sense that hearing children born to deaf parents might have a heightened ability to listen and communicate.

“I would think you would find that any child with parents of any disability would grow up being more sensitive to people,” she says.

In addition, she says, much of American Sign Language is conveyed via body language. For example, there is only one hand sign for “good looking,” with nothing to differentiate “pretty” from “gorgeous.” That distinction, she says, might come in the facial expression of the person giving the sign.

Another consideration, she says, is that anyone who knows sign language is bilingual. “He is bridging two cultures.”

The meaning of words

It took Len at least one and a half years to close the gap in his speech development.

“It’s not that I couldn’t say the words,” he says. “It was understanding the words. When the teacher would say the word ‘cake’ I would have to try to understand what the word ‘cake’ meant.

“I was asking everybody the question: What does that mean? And to this day, I am never embarrassed to say, ‘What does that mean?'”

He recalls a time when he was about 11 when he was with his parents in a St. Louis movie theater.

“I’d tell them what the movie was about. What they were saying. If it was thundering. If there was the sound of rain. The sound of a car crashing.”

Dolores has no doubt that her brother’s great gift as a public servant was shaped by his early life.

“I think we both are very good listeners,” she says.

“When you have deaf parents – and I’m speaking for all children with deaf parents – you become their ears and you, in turn, become a parent after a while,” she says. “We would go to the doctor’s office with them to speak for them.”

Len has many deaf friends. They occasionally contact him to ask that he be there, to interpret, when they meet the insurance man, the sub-contractor, the real estate agent. He obliges.

He attends numerous homeowners’ association meetings where, if needed, he will sign.

“He is so used to working for people,” Dolores says. “You do for other people what you do for your parents.”

‘It hit me hard’

Bartolo and Dolores Pagano died Oct. 30, 1974, their 35th wedding anniversary. He was 56 and she was 61.

Leonard knew something was wrong when he found out that his mother had not arrived at work. Leonard drove to their North County home.

He entered through the front door and saw his mom’s purse and his father’s keys on the kitchen table. They were home. But where?

He found their bodies downstairs. He wasn’t sure how they died. A neighbor heard him scream.

They died of carbon monoxide poisoning. As best as police can tell, Bartolo Pagano accidentally left his wife’s car running in the garage. They had returned home from grocery shopping. Bartolo had backed the car up close to the garage door, leaving room at the other end to use a step stool to take down Halloween decorations and items for the anniversary celebration.

His father’s handprint was on the hood. He had probably placed it there while going up, or coming down, the step stool.

Len says that although his Dad could not hear the running car, he was extremely sensitive to vibrations and should have noticed that the car was running.

They must have been in a rush and forgot, Len says. “It hit me hard.”

Len cannot forget the night before his parents’ death. He had a young family and was angry about having to go with his father, to interpret, to buy a new car. When his father thanked him repeatedly that night Len said nothing.

“I did not hug him goodbye and that has never left my mind,” he says. “Whenever you leave your loved ones, always hug them goodbye.”

Someone who listens

Three years ago St. Peters resident Diane Gleaves went to St. Peters City Hall to object to the size of a 550-home development planned near her home at Highway 94 and Harvester Road.

Gleaves, a teacher at Bryan Middle School, took note as to who on the Board of Aldermen listened and who was polite.

The plans were approved with former Mayor Shawn Brown breaking a 4-4 tie.

This is what Gleaves recalls of Pagano.

“He let anybody who wanted to talk talk. He was not in a rush. Len Pagano actually listened.”

By The Suburban Journals

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  1. December 13, 2010 at 12:18 am

    clever posting! I believe that helps me well. Answers a several fears for me. TY!

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