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Originally published Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:09 PM

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Grad who personifies perseverance

Despite being told he'd likely never walk or talk, Alex Leavitt will graduate with a degree in history from the University of Puget Sound on Sunday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

College commencements

University of Puget Sound: Sunday, May 16, 2-4:30 p.m., Baker Stadium

University of Washington: Saturday, June 12, 12-4:30 p.m., Husky Stadium

Western Washington University: Saturday, June 12, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Carver Gym

Seattle University: Sunday, June 13, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., KeyArena

Seattle Pacific University: Sunday, June 13, 2-5 p.m., Safeco Field

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When their infant son's condition was diagnosed, the doctor cautioned Tom Leavitt and Darcy Goodman against exploring the condition because it would "scare the hell out" of them.

They investigated anyway and learned their son, Alex, might never speak or walk. But, 24 years later, Alex Leavitt is graduating from the University of Puget Sound.

His father, Tom, who's on the board of trustees, will hand Alex a diploma Sunday, capping a five-year journey leading to a degree in history.

"The kid who was never supposed to walk or talk, he's about to graduate from one of the fine liberal-arts colleges in the country," Tom Leavitt said last week. "I keep telling everybody it's going to be a two-handkerchief day."

During his last university class, Alex sat at the front of the room with his pen in hand as other students scribbled notes.

Alex's pen never touched paper. It's not that he doesn't need to take notes.

He can't write.

Alex said he's had a lot of help on his path toward graduation.

He attended the private Seattle Academy, worked with private tutors and used school-provided note-takers.

Alex's motor skills did not develop fully. His father remembers teaching Alex how to pour a soft drink from a can into a glass and how to hold a toothbrush.

He might not be able to pronounce a word or he might drop seven pencils in a row, but he did it all with a sense of humor, said Wanda Elder, a Seattle Academy learning specialist who knows Alex from high school.

Over time, Alex realized he might have a shot at graduating from high school. When he did, he imagined going to college.

Improvement seen

Tom Leavitt noticed how Alex kept improving. Just when he thought his son could do no more, Alex would take another step.

"What were enormous steps for him, were really actually small," his father said: Learning to pronounce a new word, completing a homework assignment with minimal help from a tutor.

Step by step

But these steps built up. Alex graduated from high school with five universities to choose from.

"I kept proving them wrong, and I kept going further and further," Alex said.

With the help of his sister, he chose to attend the University of Puget Sound.

But living alone on campus was difficult, and he didn't fare well.

The school placed Alex on academic probation after his first year. His grades, administrators said, had to improve.

"A lot of people thought: 'OK, they're right, he can't function in college,' " Alex said. "What turned it around was, I wanted to prove them wrong."

He slowly adjusted to college life and kept a positive attitude.

At the university, Alex never asked for a break. He turned in a 30-page final history paper like all the other history majors.

"He's never said what he had or what he struggles with," said professor Jason Scheideman, who taught Alex in an international-relations class. "He doesn't say. I don't really ask."

"He couldn't have achieved what he did if he didn't want to," his father said.

Alex already has lined up a summer internship with the Seattle Storm.

"Just looking at how far I've come, how much further can I go?" he said. "That's kind of an idea I have."

Andrew Doughman: 206-464-3195 or adoughman@seattletimes.com

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