October 08, 2002 12:00 PM

It’s hard to imagine James Earl Jones without his booming Darth Vader voice. But once upon a time, Jones, 71, kept silent because of his tough time pronouncing words — a problem that he now speaks freely about, even to members of Congress, PEOPLE reports.

“As a child, I gave up speech. I stuttered badly, and so I retreated and lived in a world of silence rather than speak,” Jones told a congressional panel Tuesday. “But I found my voice in books and I found the expanded vocabulary that is so important for someone who stutters.”

The actor and Verizon phone company pitchman testified before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce as part of a literacy program titled “Verizon Reads.”

“To be illiterate in America — or anywhere for that matter — is to be unsafe, uncomfortable and unprotected,” Jones said at the hearing.

As a child, he recalled, “I was mute to the outside world, but there were hundreds of conversations in my head. And that is the beauty of reading that all children discover. The world that grown men and women discover when they, too, learn to read.”

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