Joel Korte ’07 is a man who knows how to make good eye contact. A conversation with him is sure to feature him holding your attention and keeping you engaged as he speaks.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, Korte said it was basically a life-changing moment when he learned how to maintain that kind of eye contact.
“I’ve noticed it helps desensitize me to the negative emotions I would feel, so it helped me manage things physically too,” Korte said.
You see, Korte stutters. Always has. Still does. Today, though, that feature of his personality and life is just that: a feature, far from definitive of his daily life and what he has accomplished. Korte’s path has taken him from being a quiet young man ashamed of his communication difficulties to a business owner, husband, father and a co-host of StutterTalk, a podcast series dedicated to openly talking and educating about stuttering. The series recently celebrated its 600th episode and is listened to in more than 170 countries.
“It’s been really, really cool to see Joel’s journey play out,” said StutterTalk co-host and friend Caryn Herring.
The ripples of tragedy
Growing up in Elk River, Minnesota, Korte played football and was drawn to St. Thomas in large part because of the opportunity to be a student athlete. He was just that: While earning his degree in electrical engineering he racked up more than 100 career catches and 1,000 receiving yards for the Tommies.
In the spring of his senior year, though, as he was interviewing for jobs and contemplating his future, tragedy struck as his older brother, Chase, was killed by a drunk driver in a car accident in California.
“For about a year after that I was just – it was tough to do lots of things,” Korte said. “I ended up graduating; everyone at St. Thomas was really supportive and awesome. That was nice to be in an environment where people cared about you.”
But, throughout that time, stuttering became all the more difficult to manage.
“It was always hard in college, but I would avoid it. And if I had to do a presentation in class or something, it wouldn’t go well but I would just try to move forward. And in social situations I was able to hide it. But I just I hated it. I didn’t want to spend time working on it or thinking about it,” Korte said. “When I started working and graduated and was going through this intense grief, it started to become a really big problem with communicating at work. I decided I needed help.”
Korte spent three weeks at an intense therapy program in New York in 2008, where he met Herring and others dealing with similar issues.
“It was the first time where I was exposed to this concept where stuttering is OK, and that the most important thing is that you’re an effective communicator. I had always equated stuttering with being terrible and something I had to avoid at all costs,” Korte said. “Once I started to meet other people who stutter and see that there were other ways to approach it and manage it, it really opened up some possibilities in the way I thought about it and managed it.”
Sparked by that positive pivot in his way of thinking, Korte enrolled to earn his speech pathology degree at the University of Minnesota while he worked part time at a guitar effects company, which tapped into his lifelong music passion. He enjoyed it so much so that after earning his degree and working as a speech pathologist, he combined his loves of engineering and music. In 2013, he started his own company, Chase Bliss, named after his brother’s belief in following your bliss in life, and which makes guitar pedals that leverage modern technology to control vintage, analog technology and sound.
As these big life changes have played out, a constant in Korte’s life has been StutterTalk. He first appeared on the show after meeting its founders in New York, and has helped host the show since 2010.
“I often think, ‘I can’t really believe it.’ If you were to describe the situation to me when I was a student at St. Thomas, for instance, I don’t think I would have believed it. There’s no way I would be on a podcast and be comfortable stuttering with other people,” Korte said. “I remember the first time I listened to StutterTalk … it was just jarring to hear other people stuttering and not caring. Not that they weren’t caring, but they weren’t feeling shame. How can you be comfortable with that, laugh and make jokes? It started to shift in my mind. Maybe stuttering is OK.”
That kind of normalization and desensitization is a huge part of why StutterTalk became such an important part of her life, Herring said.
“Stuttering is not often openly seen and talked about, and it helped me a lot hearing that podcast,” she said. “When I wasn’t around other people who stuttered, it made me feel good to turn on the podcast; it was like I was around friends. The people who were hosting the show were role models to me.”
Korte, Herring and their fellow co-host Roisin McManus are now those role models for others: Their conversations – which often feature interviews and news surrounding speech pathology’s latest research – often inspire positive feedback.
“Hearing what it has meant to someone else really makes it worthwhile,” Herring said. “There was a young woman from China who came up to me at a conference and said when she moved to the states that she felt like someone hearing her stutter reflected not only poorly on her, but her whole country. Hearing us stutter openly was the first time it crossed her mind that this doesn’t have to bring shame and disappointment, but you can share that with a public audience and everything will be fine.”
At the same time, Korte said he and others are careful not to say their experiences represent others; everyone’s experience is unique, he said.
“I would never tell someone these are the steps you have to take. I also don’t think I’m the end product of something that’s right; this is just something that works for me and this is my truth,” Korte said. “I certainly have gotten great feedback and it feels good because I needed to see examples of people who stutter, who demonstrate that you can be just as quality of a communicator as someone who doesn’t stutter.
“It’s been a journey in a lot of different ways,” he said.